FL Private schools set to cash in on virtual education tax - WFLA News Channel 8

FL private schools set to cash in on virtual education tax dollars

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The Obridge Academy is a virtual school with a virtual Florida headquarters and a virtual track record of performance.

But under new legislation awaiting the signature of Governor Rick Scott it could become one of many for-profit private education institutions that qualify for a fortune in state education money to teach Florida kids in cyberspace.

"I think what you see right now in the virtual world, at least in education, is a little bit of the wild, wild west," said Jeff Brandes, a Republican State Senator from St. Petersburg. "That's what house bill 7029 was meant to correct.

Brandes said the proposed law opens up online education to a host of new providers.

He and other supporters say it levels the playing field for startups that will essentially compete for state education money with the so-called "gold standard" of online education, Florida Virtual School which is run by the state, and other online learning programs sponsored by individual school districts in Florida.

"Parents should be able to choose where they want to send their kids to school," Brandes said.

But another lawmaker isn't so sure it's a good idea to export Florida education money and teaching jobs. "First of all I want to bring jobs into Florida, ‘said Democratic Carl Zimmermann, a State Representative from Palm Harbor. "I don't want to send jobs out of Florida."

Under House Bill 7029, an online school doesn't have to have any physical presence in Florida, a departure from current requirements.

"Literally they could be in China," said  Zimmermann. "We have no idea where they're going to be."

Brandes said location doesn't matter in online education.

"I think this bill, which was passed on a bipartisan basis, provides a pathway for our kids to have access to the best the world has to offer in education, whether that be at MIT or Harvard or Stanford."

But Zimmerman worries it also opens the door to opportunistic private schools that stand to collect millions of tax dollars if the Governor signs the new legislation into law.

"We're giving our children to these people we don't know a lot about and it's not good for them, it's not good for the taxpayers and it's certainly not good for our future," said Zimmermann.

Brandes said the proposed law has a number of built in safeguards such as requiring certified teachers with an exception for "adjunct educators, " and teacher background checks.

There's another provision under the new law that deeply troubles Zimmerman. The proposal says approved online providers who collect a share of state education money—be they institutions or individuals--do not have to have a proven record of success and can operate for a year under a "probationary" status.

"We're giving our children to these people we don't know a lot about and it's not good for them, it's not good for the taxpayers and it's certainly not good for our future," said Zimmermann.

We should have a probation period," Said Brandes. "So that new, innovative ideas come can come to the table."

Zimmermann said The Obridge Academy is a perfect example of why he's worried about untested private institutions getting in the game of online education in Florida at taxpayer expense.

Obridge has its roots in a tiny school called the Gulfside Academy that briefly operated a private for-profit online high school and middle school out of a one room office in the same complex in Palm Harbor  where Zimmerman—a public high school teacher by profession--runs a part-time business.

Last year Gulfside's owner, a local chiropractor, sold his online academy to Obridge Educational Group, LLC which registered with the Florida Department of State Division of Corporations at a West Palm Beach street address.

But News Channel 8 discovered that address is a "virtual office," used only a mailing address and a meeting space that Obridge can reserve by the hour on an as-needed basis.

Obridge's Head of School, Geri Burkheimer and other members of her administrative staff actually work out of another headquarters in Glen Cove, New York. 

State records lists the managing member of Obridge as Xinwei Lu with an apartment address in North Bergen, New Jersey.  Attempts to reach Xinwei were unsuccessful.

Burkheimer and her staff have declined repeated requests for interviews about the school and did not respond to a list of questions submitted in writing and send by registered mail.  But after an initial contact Burkheimer did send this brief email response:

"At Obridge Academy we typically stay focused on providing exceptional quality education for our students; and while we were originally interested in working with you, we don't often engage in big publicity like this," Burkheimer wrote.

"I'm sorry we could not help you with your story, but we appreciate your interest in our school. I'm sure the information you find on our website will be sufficient for mentioning Obridge Academy in your story about online education in Florida."

Obridge's website notes the academy is accredited as a private institution by AdvancED. Burkheimer said her academy charges private tuition and does not collect state money for its online education services.

Because it is accredited, students can apply credits from individual courses they successfully pass at Obridge to their graduation requirements in public schools.

JoAnne Glenn runs Pasco County's district-sponsored virtual learning program called eSchool.

Glenn said parents should ask questions about accreditation, track records, student to teacher ratios and the performance of student in national tests no matter which online institutions they choose—private or public—for their kids education.

"Quality schools should have good questions to those," said Glenn.

"Those kinds of questions should be part of what I would characterize as an interview process," Glenn said. "One thing you could ask for is to talk with other families who have children enrolled."

Glenn and a number of other public online education providers worry the new legislation awaiting Governor Scott's approval will siphon money away from established public institutions like Pasco's eSchool and Florida Virtual School and into the coffers of for-profit institutions that are getting into the virtual education arena for the money.

The fear is that creating new opportunity for private for-profit schools will also create diploma mills for kids in some cases. "There are some that have absolutely crossed that line," said Glenn.

Zimmermann, who makes his living as a TV production teacher at Countryside High School said he's not opposed to more Internet-based learning opportunities, but thinks the legislature went about it the wrong way.

Zimmermann hopes Governor Scott will eventually veto the virtual school measure. The governor's office said the Legislature has not yet forwarded the measure to Scott for his signature.

"This is home school gone crazy," said Zimmermann.



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