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Education

Alaska establishes new statewide online school staffed by a Florida education provider

Commissioner of Education and Early Development Michael Johnson confers via video with University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen on Friday, January 13, 2017, in Anchorage. (Erik Hill / ADN archive)

Alaska education officials this week announced a new statewide virtual school, the result of a sole source $525,000 contract with an embattled Florida public online education provider — a move the statewide teachers’ union says it was blindsided by and opposes.

The Alaska Statewide Virtual School will allow K-12 students kept home by the coronavirus pandemic to take dozens of courses ranging from kindergarten social studies to high school computer programming online, the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development said Tuesday.

"While the world around us is scrambling with uncertainty, I believe our students and teachers can and will re-imagine teaching and learning,” said Michael Johnson, commissioner of the education department.

School districts are not mandated to use the virtual school programs, and classes will be “optional” for all families, the education department said.

The new online school will be operated by the Florida Virtual School, a public agency considered a pioneer in online education since the 1990s — but recently plagued by a management scandal.

The statewide teachers’ union said it was “surprised” to learn of the decision. Educators and even school superintendents reportedly learned about the new online offerings from the press release.

“I’m disappointed that there was no effort to collaborate with Alaska teachers prior to this rollout,” said Tim Parker, the head of the National Education Association-Alaska.

Parker questioned whether remote teachers would be a good fit for Alaska students.

“I can’t imagine a Florida teacher will be able to connect and understand the unique needs of Alaska kids,” he said.

Florida Virtual School website screenshot.

The virtual school sends state money to Florida, instead of to teachers here, Parker said.

“All educators want what’s best for students, but at this time I cannot, and will not, endorse a plan which sends $500,000 to Florida and has no vetting and no input from Alaska education professionals.”

Teachers are also worried that the online school could suck resources away from public education in Alaska communities after the pandemic ends. The state says it plans to keep the online courses available even after physical school resumes.

“Long-term, AKSVS will remain an option,” said Rochelle Lindley, an education department spokeswoman.

Florida Virtual School will provide teachers, courses and online support, said Tamara Van Wyhe, a division director with the education department.

The first phase of the contract promises to offer a “Turnkey Global School Online.” Future phases mention training Alaska teachers to deliver courses online.

“There are places, either capacity-wise or manpower-wise, that it’s a very heavy lift for teachers to provide instruction in all these content areas for students,” said Van Wyhe.

The Florida curriculum is “pretty standard online curriculum” used by many states, and especially helpful for rural communities having difficulty transitioning in-classroom lessons to online learning, said Doug Gray, the principal of PAIDEA Cooperative School, an Anchorage distance learning school.

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The plan to establish a statewide online school was in the works before the pandemic.

“This is a conversation the state has been having for some time,” commissioner Johnson said Wednesday.

A year ago, the education department hired a contractor to examine the idea.

The Florida Virtual School “ranked very high as a model we should consider using,” Lindley wrote.

When the new coronavirus pandemic hit and the department needed to act fast, the state chose the program because it had been recommended, she said.

A one-year contract was signed March 25. Because the contract was a government-to-government agreement, the state did not have to put out a request for proposals and did not consider other vendors, according to Lindley.

The state followed “standard procurement policies’ for a government-to-government contract, she said.

The Florida Virtual School is based in Orlando, and operates as a public school district in the state. It serves more than 200,000 students in Florida and beyond.

Last year, the school’s general counsel resigned after an Orlando Sentinel investigation brought forward allegations of improper spending and bad behavior.

Later, Florida’s governor and lawmakers ordered the state to take over the school and install new leadership. A Florida Department of Education report concluded that the school was being mismanaged and needed a new board, ethics standards for staff and an internal auditor.

Daily News reporter Emily Goodykoontz contributed reporting to this story.

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