Virtual schools in a fight for adequate funding

Virtual school funding gets 'Do Not Pass Go' in Georgia.
Virtual school funding gets 'Do Not Pass Go' in Georgia.

Heart-wrenching decisions made by state bureaucrats that affect the pursuit of a child’s dream might sound like the makings of a Hollywood movie, but for virtual schools in Georgia and elsewhere, these are par for the course.

Two proposed virtual schools in Georgia got the OK to open this fall, but with very limited funding. Their plans are now on hold while they appeal the state’s decision, which supporters of online instruction say was based on politics and not a careful analysis of the costs necessary to operate a high-quality virtual school. What’s more, virtual school advocates say Georgia is not alone in funding virtual schools at a level that is dramatically lower than what traditional schools receive per pupil.

The two Georgia virtual schools, Kaplan Academy of Georgia and Provost Academy Georgia, were approved in June by the Georgia Charter Schools Commission (GCSC), which also decides how much funding each school should receive.

In Georgia, every public school in the state gets funding from two pots—Quality Basic Education (QBE) state funding and local funding from local revenue. Although approved charter and virtual schools still get QBE funding, it’s up to the GCSC to determine local per-pupil funding for these schools.

According to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), the national average virtual school funding is $6,500 per pupil—significantly less than the average brick-and-mortar school receives per child, which is anywhere between $7,200 and $8,300. These figures are based on data from a 2006 report by Augenblick, Palaich, & Associates (APA), however, so they are likely outdated.

Both Georgia virtual schools were offered the same amount of per-pupil funding: $3,200. The low amount came from the commission’s decision not to grant any local funding to either school.

“We gave them the full amount of state QBE funding,” said Mark Peevy, executive director of the GCSC, “which was $3,200. No, we did not grant local dollars.”

Currently, Georgia has only one virtual-school alternative for elementary and middle school students and their parents, the Georgia Cyber Academy, operated by a separate charter school called the Odyssey School. Georgia Cyber Academy also receives just $3,200 per pupil, but it survives on this amount in part because it receives additional support from the Odyssey School.

Georgia Cyber Academy is currently trying to expand its offerings to ninth-graders next year. Matt Arkin, head of school, said he believes that, if approved, Georgia Cyber Academy would receive about $3,300 in state dollars for each ninth-grade student—a figure that Mike Klein, editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, said is dismal.

Meris Stansbury

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