What Does a Virtual Education Cost?

What does it cost to run a virtual school?  It’s not a simple question to answer, but in short it appears to cost a bit less given savings in facilities and transportation but not a lot less given teaching loads similar to traditional schools.  There is clearly the opportunity for cost savings but it looks more like 10-15% than 50%.
Like their virtual cousins, blended schools that incorporate a mixture of online/computer-based instruction with onsite/traditional learning have the potential to improve learning and operating productivity.  Blended models create the potential for tiered staffing and a modified schedule that breaks the model of one teacher with 28 kids in a classroom.
When a state commission proposed a crazy figure for funding virtual schools, Susan Patrick, iNACOL responded with the letter below that attempts to answer the question.

We want to thank you for your passion, time and expertise in serving on the Georgia Charter Schools Commission and creating more educational choices for the children of Georgia.  As the President and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), I have the privilege of advocating and supporting high quality virtual educational options for students, not only in the United States, but in the global community.  As a group, iNACOL represents over 3,100 members from a diverse cross-section of K-12 education from school districts, charter schools, state education agencies, non-profit organizations, research institutions, corporate entities and other content & technology providers.  This experience, exposure and collective knowledge positions us to offer well-reasoned, practical and applicable knowledge to both the creation and sustainability of high quality educational options.
We were pleased to see that Georgia understands the value of virtual education as evidenced by its consideration of virtual charter high schools in the state.  With a statewide high school graduation rate of 58.1% and an estimated 59,510 high school dropouts in 2008, Georgia must take drastic measures to curb both the fiscal and social impact of such a high failure rate.  Virtual education has been shown to be highly effective in reaching all students, including “at-risk” kids, and providing them with a path to earn a high school diploma and secure an open door for their future.
However, we were very disheartened to learn two virtual charter schools that were approved were forced to withdraw their application due to an inadequate funding level around $3,300 per student. It is unclear how the Commission concluded that a quality, full-time virtual charter school can operate at or less than $3,300 per student, and what, if any, research or analysis was done to arrive at that low amount.  We were pleased to read Executive Director Peevy’s comments in the Atlanta Journal Constitution saying, “If our funding level isn’t sufficient enough to attract high-quality virtual charter schools to Georgia, then we want to start a discussion about how we change the funding level.”  We are encouraged to learn that the Commission will address the funding inequities at their upcoming meeting on August 19th.
As unbiased experts in virtual education, iNACOL strongly urges the Georgia Charter Schools Commission to re-evaluate its decision and conduct a thorough analysis of costs and funding of quality full-time virtual charter schools to determine a funding level that is fair and adequate, and does not discriminate against the students who need these public schools the most.  iNACOL pledges to assist you in identifying the best policy practices and research so that Georgia’s students can have access to many high quality K-12 online public school options. Please consider the following facts:

  1. *The average amount of funding for virtual charter schools in the U.S. is approximately $6,500 per pupil.  This moderate level of funding has enabled virtual charters schools in states across the U.S. to provide quality, comprehensive, and sustainable programs for students, at less cost than average public schools.
  2. *A number of states have conducted comprehensive examinations of the costs and funding of virtual charter schools.  For example, in 2005, the Ohio legislature studied the costs of their full-time online charter schools and found they were “reasonable.”  The Ohio Legislative Committee on Education Oversight found that online charter schools at that time spent $5382 per student, compared with $7452 for students in brick and mortar charter schools, and $8437 for students in traditional public schools.
  3. *In 2008, the Wisconsin Legislature passed a law enabling virtual charter schools without modifying the funding which, at the time, was slightly below the national average of $6,500.  An audit by the Legislative Audit Bureau showed that overall the state’s virtual charter school costs were reasonable and the funding they received were in line with their costs.   (Appendices 1 and 2  provide further evidence of costs associated with public virtual schools)
  4. *Some independent national studies suggest virtual schools funding levels should be higher than $6,500 based on their costs.  A 2006 study by Augenblick, Palaich, & Associates on behalf of the BellSouth Foundation on costs and funding for virtual schools concluded that “based on the data it appears that the costs of operating a virtual school are about the same as those of a regular brick-and-mortar school.”  It further noted that full-time virtual schools are more expensive than programs that offer supplemental courses and found costs for full-time virtual schools ranged between $7,200 and about $8,300 per pupil.
  5. *There are currently more than 200,000 students enrolled in full-time public virtual schools in 25 states, and the numbers are rising as the demand from parents and students grows every year.   Virtual schools do not incur the same level of overhead costs such as facilities and transportation, but they have significant additional costs critical to supporting teaching and individualized education such as learning management systems, online courses, and other technological components, in addition to teacher and administrative costs.

iNACOL’s intention is to be a resource to the Commission and provide you with the facts so that you can make a well informed decision and ensure funding at a fair, equitable and sustainable level for students who choose to enroll in Georgia’s virtual charter schools .  Please feel free to contact us at any time for further assistance.  We look forward to a bright future for virtual schooling students in your state.
With Respect,
Susan Patrick
iNACOL President/CEO
[Appendix 1 showed an estimate of virtual education in WI of $6460]

[Appendix 2 showed the typical cost of a virtual school at $6900]

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

1 Comment


Is there a way to get a copy of the appendices mentioned?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.