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Virtual School Funding: Keep Current Formula and Create a New One

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As President and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), I support expanding high-quality educational opportunities to all students in Virginia.  This support is regardless of geography, what zip code the students live in, or their parents socio-economic background.  Equity and access to education is important and online learning can help every student access the courses and educational programs they need in order to be college and career-ready, thus leveling the playing field for students in every part of the state.

Senate Bill 598 (Virtual School Funding), as introduced in January, was well-written and balanced, and ensured fair and equitable funding for public school students who wanted to access high-quality, full-time online public schools available to students throughout the state – schools that were state-approved during the rigorous Virginia Department of Education review process.

Late last year a working group created by Governor Bob McDonnell examined virtual school funding across the United States.  I had the opportunity to present evidence noting that the most effective schools were funded in the range of $6,000 to $7,000 per child – far below Virginia’s average per pupil funding of $11,000 in a bricks and mortar environment.

The working group developed a proposal that would have funded full-time quality online services at $5,800 to $6,500 per child.  That funding model was contained in the original SB 598.   It was a formula that would have assured sufficient funds to offer a complete K-12 curricula and expert online instructors in all subjects and courses (including Advanced Placement courses).  And it would have given Virginia’s online programs scalability, enabling them to reach across geographic boundaries so that students could access the best quality programs and teachers online from any place or zip code.

But last-minute changes in the House made to the bill in late February removed this well-balanced language in the bill, and instead inserted clauses limiting student access to a variety of quality online learning programs.

Fortunately, the Virginia Senate rejected the revised legislation, averting changes that would have reduced the scope and quality of online learning in Virginia. And these changes would have done nothing to establish an effective funding formula.

But the failure to pass a state budget continues to threaten the growth of quality digital learning in Virginia.

The Governor’s original proposal was designed to fix problems in the existing funding system, which counts each enrollee as a student in the school division offering online services rather than in the district where they live.  Because of the way Virginia funds our schools, for example, Buena Vista City receives more than $6,000 in state funding for each student enrolled in  its  schools (including online students).  Williamsburg City, on the other hand, receives less than $2,000 per student.  And that means that a Williamsburg student attending the Buena Vista online school will cost the state an additional  $4,000 to educate.

Unfortunately, having failed to fix  the problem the right way, some members of the General Assembly may try to  fix it the wrong way.  Last year, a budget amendment would have capped student participation in virtual schools and changed the formula so that virtual schools receive a student’s residential school district funding rather than i the state share due the online school.  The effect would have been to force virtual schools to turn away students from areas receiving low state funding thus denying these students a better education.  This amendment, is being readied to introduce once again and it will set up horrible inequities.  Students from places like Bath or Goochland or Lancaster counties will be effectively blocked from full-time online education in Virginia.  Rural students will have fewer options.  Wealthy areas like Fairfax could  organize full-time programs for its  own students, but counties with fewer resources will be out in the cold.

Governor McDonnell correctly vetoed such an amendment last year.  If it raises its head again this year, he should do so again.  It’s better to maintain the current formula for a year, however deficient, than to commit to a new one that will do such great harm.
And then the parties involved in developing a new funding model should start meeting immediately, work out the kinks, and devise a model that ensures funding equity and offers Virginia students access to high-quality, world-class educational choices unlimited by geographic barriers.

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