What Do Virtual Schools Cost?

The Digital Learning Council will issue its 10 recommendations for state policy makers this week.  The process has kicked off a school finance discussion including these questions:

  • *what do virtual schools cost?
  • *how to use school funding to promote achievement, completion, and innovation?

The pay-upon-completion model in Florida looks attractive but only works because they also have rolling enrollments. Full payment in arrears is also a significant barrier to entry. A program operator has to have enough completions to fund the teachers. They may need to front the cost of providing computers and other physical materials.
Full-time programs historically have had some drop off during the first few months as students and families decide the option doesn’t work for them. That makes staffing a real challenge. You either overload the teachers during the drop period or just operate in states that fund over $7,000 per FTE.
Here’s a couple thoughtful ideas from an online school operator about funding supplemental (part-time or individual course) enrollments:
1) Mandate that completion rates be reported and that students also be included who leave during the drop period
2) Establish a minimum funding level based on progress through the course. This encourages you to get the student moving, even if they will have trouble completing.
3) Provide a higher payment for completions in core subjects by students who are special needs, low income (minority or non-minority rather than specifying minority) and by students who have tested below proficient in any subject during the previous two school years or homeschoolers who test below grade level on an agreed on instrument. Also provide incentive payment for students who pass the AP exam and for those that pass state subject proficiency exams.
4) Provide a higher funding level for grades K-5 to account for the physical material needs (by the way, this is why I think some states will just not offer supplemental in these grades)
5) Provide a higher funding level, or at a minimum, incentive payments, for completions in subjects like physics, advanced math, AP etc
6) Require the state to provide the data on how students perform on state standardized tests in the subjects in which they take a supplemental course and high school competency exams and calculate some sort of rating of supplemental providers like what Florida is doing for providers in the full-time program. Publish these results
7) Shut down programs after three years if they don’t meet minimum standards
For full-time enrollments, online learning should offer some savings, but it’s tough to pin down those levels. Most charter schools already operate using funding that is less than traditional public schools—if they are already operating on 20% less, it doesn’t make sense to ask virtual charters to take further discounts to run academic programs with similar teacher staffing patterns.
It’s worth noting that the best performing virtual schools are in states that provide funding parity. Teachers make the difference whether online or in the classroom. Virtual classes and schools can offer some operating cost savings, but they should receive full funding for a robust academic program with a full complement of teachers.

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.

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