NSBA Virtual Schools Report & The Questions Of “True Costs”

Below are a few observations on the recent National School Boards Association’s (NSBA) report on virtual schools:

  • Overall, it’s nothing new; a rehash of reports from years past.  Much of this information has been presented, discussed and debated in state capitols across the country.  The report does, however, draw mostly negative conclusions about online schools, which is not a surprise given the policy views of NSBA and aggressive lobbying by its state chapters against charter schools, multi-district online schools, and parent choice.
  • NSBA touches on the issue of school funding based on a single count date vs. average daily attendance (ADA) but doesn’t seem to want to take a position.  K12 Inc. has long advocated that states funding schools based on a single count date should reform their systems and move to ADA or ADM – not just for online schools but for all schools.  It ensures that students have greater freedom and flexibility to transfer to another school mid-year if their current school is not working for them.  We agree that no school or district should receive funding for students they are not educating.
  • States like Colorado, which still have a single count date for purposes of school funding, are in the minority.  Ironically, it is school districts and school boards that fought against changing single count date funding.  And despite what some have alleged, there is no financial gain for K12 if students leave online schools mid-year.
  • On academics, sweeping conclusions can’t be made by looking only at surface-level data, such as whether or not a school made AYP (a metric widely viewed as flawed and unreliable).  A deeper dive is required, including disaggregating data on new vs. returning students, academic gains, performance over time, demographics, etc.  Some evaluations have done that and othershave not.  A comprehensive look at academic performance of K12-managed online schools can be viewed here.
  • Costs and funding:  Critics often claim that the “actual costs” of online schools are unknown.  It may be easy to allege, but it’s not true.  Online schools are public schools – operated by school districts and/or public charter schools – so the schools’ budgets, audited financials, and contracts with vendors are open and transparent.But let me turn this question around:  what is the actual cost to educate a student in a brick and mortar school?  Is there a single figure?  Is there even a reliable range?  Why does New Jersey spend far more than Utah to educate a full time student?  Why do similar size districts spend different amounts to educate kids?

These are all rhetorical questions, of course.  There is no single figure on the “true costs” to educate a student in a traditional school.   If there were, there would be no reasonable explanation for suchwide funding and spending disparities among school districts and states.  Drilling down to a single figure is impossible because per pupil costs vary significantly by state, by district, by school, and by student. So it is with online schools.  Every online school is different.  Though costs may be similar, they are not the same across the board.  Operating costs vary just like traditional schools, but with one major difference:  online schools receive and spend less than traditional schools to educate the same student.  According to the latest U.S. Census report, traditional schools received on average over $12,000 per student (local, state, and federal tax dollars) and spent over $10,000 (remaining monies likely going to reserve funds, pension obligations, etc.).  Others have made a compelling case that the actual costs are even higher than what is publicly reported.  Contrast that with online schools.  According to studies and reports, the average per pupil for online schools is about $6,500.  That’s a savings to taxpayers. Accountability and transparency in public education are important.  But all this focus only on funding and costs of digital learning begs the question:  since far more public dollars are spent on traditional schools, shouldn’t we be more concerned about identifying the “true costs” to educate students in brick and mortar schools rather than constantly questioning new school models that are already funded less and spend less?   For more see Tom’s tongue in check response, Report: Study Warns That Bricks May Hinder Learning

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