Jeff Kwitowski's picture

Examining Costs and Funding of Online Schools

We are in the middle of the legislative season, which every year means policymakers in a few states ask about the costs and funding of full-time online public schools.  This is an issue that has come up since multi-district online schools first emerged nearly 15 years ago. 

The consensus from industry experts is that the average cost to operate a full-time, full-service online public school is approximately $6,400 per student (compared to over $10,000 for a traditional school).  And, in general, online public schools receive about 30-40% less in total funding (state, local, and federal funds) than traditional schools. 

Every online school is different.  Just like with traditional schools, operating costs for online schools will vary based on many factors, including grades served, student population, number of students, academic program offerings, and other reasons.  With traditional brick and mortar schools, for example, the cost to operate a high school is much higher than an elementary school, and schools that offer more academic programs and services will generally cost more.  Therefore, when looking at cost comparisons, it’s important to match apples to apples.  

Below is compilation of reports and studies from industry experts that have examined the costs of online schools.

Ashley Collier's picture

Weekly Roundup -- February 27, 2015

Weekly Roundup showcases stories and information about the students and schools we serve, K12 educators, and important education issues. 

BERG: Pitts is wrong about Virtual Academy
(The Leaf Chronicle)

As the mother of a child who attends the Tennessee Virtual Academy, I take strong offense to Rep. Joe Pitts’ recent column (“Virtual Academy gets failing grades,” Page A5, Feb. 18). Pitts says TNVA is underperforming and needs to be closed. Yet, he fails to mention that TNVA is now one of the fastest-improving schools in the state. He also fails to mention there are more than 100 other schools in the state that are not improving as rapidly, with test scores very similar to TNVA – including Montgomery Central Middle School in his home county – that are not subject to closure.

Measuring Individual Student Progress Toward Graduation – Not a Four Year Cohort Rate
(thinkTANK)

In 2010 federal regulations went into effect that requires each state to implement a four-year cohort model as the means for calculating graduation rates. This regulation gives every student four years to graduate from the time a student enters ninth grade. Students may transfer from school to school during the four years, but the student must graduate in the fourth year. States are permitted to track a five-year graduation rate, but it can only be done alongside the four-year rate.

Fuel Education Releases Guide to Scaling Personalized Learning
(Press Release)

Personalized learning solutions provider, Fuel Education™, in association with education advocacy firm, Getting Smart®, today released a white paper exploring how schools and districts are not only implementing online and blended learning programs to address students’ individual needs, but also successfully scaling the personalized learning experience delivered through those programs.

Mary Gifford's picture

Measuring Individual Student Progress Toward Graduation - Not a Four Year Cohort Rate

The Impact of Under-Credited Students and Mobility in Fulltime Online Schools

In 2010 federal regulations went into effect that require each state to implement a four-year cohort model as the means for calculating graduation rates. This regulation gives every student four years to graduate from the time a student enters ninth grade. Students may transfer from school to school during the four years, but the student must graduate in the fourth year. States are permitted to track a five-year graduation rate, but it can only be done alongside the four-year rate.

This regulation had the goal of creating an expectation that every student can earn a high school diploma, and that graduation rates need to be tracked to show which schools are successfully graduating students in four years. The regulation assumed that students, generally, stay in the same school for four years and that states have systems to efficiently track students as they progress toward graduation.

While perhaps true in some economically advantaged communities, both of these assumptions are fundamentally flawed for far too many of our public schools. Instead, the regulation has created a “hot potato” effect that creates a perverse disincentive for enrolling under-credited students for fear of a negative impact on graduation rate.

States do have some flexibility. States may choose how to weigh graduation rates within their accountability structures.  States may elect to include additional calculations, such as six- or seven-year rates.  They may also reward methods of getting under-credited students back on track, or accelerating the pace at which a student moves toward graduation. These measurements may more accurately reflect what a school does with high school students more than a four-year cohort model. Data shows that many students who are mobile within high schools are often economically disadvantaged, under-credited, over-aged, and academically at-risk. A related report by the Evergreen Foundation (Accountability in the Digital Age, February 2015) looked at enrollment data for 24 fulltime online schools. In these schools, the report that found on average 35 percent of students who entered the schools in grade 10, 11 and 12 are not on track for graduation based on the four-year cohort rate.

Ashley Collier's picture

Weekly Roundup – February 20, 2015

Weekly Roundup is an effort to share more stories and information about the students and schools we serve, K12 educators, and important education issues. 

A Chattanooga Mom’s Plea to Keep Online Schools Open
(The Chattanoogan)

As a busy mom, it’s not often I make my way to our state Capitol to visit with my elected officials. But, last week, I had the chance to do just that as I took part in the Tennessee chapter of Public School Option’s 4th Annual Capitol Day. Joined by hundreds of families from all across the state, including many from here in the Chattanooga area, we traveled to Nashville to make our voices heard. As parents, we believe that we know the best when it comes to deciding the best possible type of education for our children. 

New Report Examines Improved Accountability Frameworks for Online Schools
(thinkTANK)

An important new report on online learning and accountability was released last week by Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning.  Titled, School Accountability in the Digital Age, the report was written and researched by John Watson and Larry Pape with Evergreen Education Group – nationally recognized experts in the field of online learning.

New Partnership Extends the Power of Online Learning to Special Education Students
(Press Release)

Across the country, schools and districts are leveraging digital learning to overcome staffing and resource challenges to improve outcomes and to address the many needs of their K-12 students—whether to expand course options, to provide assistance to those who need additional help, or to provide an alternative learning environment. Now, through a partnership between PresenceLearning and Fuel Education (FuelEd™), schools can use digital learning to address the needs of their special education students, too.   

Jeff Kwitowski's picture

New Report Examines Improved Accountability Frameworks for Online Schools

An important new report on online learning and accountability was released last week by Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning.  Titled, School Accountability in the Digital Age, the report was written and researched by John Watson and Larry Pape with Evergreen Education Group – nationally recognized experts in the field of online learning.

Online schools and traditional schools are very different, yet the standards and accountability frameworks used to measure performance are the same.  State education laws and regulations are generally designed for the brick-and-mortar school and classroom-based model.  Like trying to jam a square peg into a round hole, these legal and regulatory frameworks often do not mesh well with online schools.  Even worse, they risk producing an incomplete, and sometimes inaccurate, picture of the real quality and performance of online public schools, especially on the effectiveness of educating transfer students who move from a local public school to an online school. 

Policymakers are left to grapple with the question:  what are the best accountability frameworks to use for online schools?   This report takes a big step toward answering that question by outlining 8 policy recommendations:

1.       Credit schools with graduating students in five or six years.

2.       Measure students’ progress towards graduation, especially for situations in which students switch schools.

3.       Change funding mechanisms to systems that minimize the impact of high student mobility.

4.       Publish data on student mobility for all schools, and consider creating a designation specific to schools with high rates of student mobility, regardless of other student demographic factors.

5.       Require separate reporting on online programs so that online student outcomes can be tracked.

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