Virtual schools in a fight for adequate funding

In response to a request for comment, the office of Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue issued the following statement:

“Governor Perdue has been and continues to be very supportive of virtual schools as an additional option for parents and students. However, the funding model for virtual schools is much different than traditional bricks-and-mortar charter schools. Technology expenses, for example, may be higher, while building construction and maintenance costs are not needed. In these times of diminished state revenues, the governor is supportive of the state portion of the funding formula going to virtual schools for each student.”

According to Rosenbloom, the idea of spending already tight funds on virtual schools is a daunting idea for the state. Funding virtual schools also would put a strain on local taxpayers, as children previously home-schooled now would have the option of online instruction—meaning more students and more funds.

Another issue, said Klein, is that “brick-and-mortar schools must wait for the Georgia Supreme Court to decide whether local education dollars should follow a pupil who leaves traditional school for a charter.”

Several school systems, including Atlanta, sued this year to prevent local dollars from following the student. They lost, so they appealed to the state Supreme Court. A decision is expected later this fall or early next year.

“Currently, the Georgia Supreme Court is hearing a case challenging the constitutionality of the law creating the Charter Schools Commission—a law Governor Perdue signed,” the governor’s statement continued. “Our hope is that once the case is completed, the state can develop a funding model for virtual charter schools that recognizes their unique cost structure and allows even more families to choose this option for their students.”

Georgia isn’t alone

One of the major challenges to analyzing virtual school funding is that not a lot of research is available that compares how much states fund brick-and-mortar schools with how much they spend on virtual schools. Such comparisons are hard, because each state can choose to fund virtual schools based on different models of school funding.

However, according to the APA report, virtual school funding should be comparable to what brick-and-mortar schools receive.

Based on its 2006 report, the national average spent per pupil on brick-and-mortar schools is $7,727—a far cry from Georgia’s $3,200, and still much more than iNACOL’s estimated national average of per-pupil spending for online schools: $6,500.

Yet, some states are closer to understanding what it takes to fund virtual schools than others. According to a Georgia Cyber Academy analysis, full-time online school charter funding—though it fluctuates widely nationally—is typically higher than $3,200.

For example, Pennsylvania has paid up to $8,100 per student, and Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin provide between $5,000 and $7,500 per pupil. South Carolina is on the low end, at about $3,300 per pupil.

“The most significant expenses for virtual schools are people—teachers’ salaries and benefits, [and] administrative personnel such as principals, chief information officers, counselors, registration, and staff,” said Patrick. “Virtual schools require significant professional development budgets, as teachers need to attain a new set of strategies and pedagogical skills for the online learning environment. And while there may be some savings in the costs of space and transportation, this is offset by much higher technology expenses—from hardware, software, and infrastructure costs, such as course development and refresh, to licensing fees for the learning management system, data systems, technical support, [and] providing students with computers and/or internet access.”

If online instruction still carries a stigma among state leaders in Georgia or elsewhere, Patrick said, it’s not reflected in the fast growth of online learners across the United States.

Meris Stansbury

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