Costs for fully online public charter schools are different, not less

Dan Quisenberry
May 18, 2023 3:33:40 PM

There should be no doubt that public virtual schools have become a lifeline for thousands of students across Michigan, many of whom are economically disadvantaged, minority students, those with special education needs, and students who have faced challenges in a traditional school environment such as school safety.

Students like Kofi Aaku, a senior at Michigan International Prep School, a full-time virtual public charter school. Kofi attended a traditional district school until his life was forever changed in 2017 when he was involved in a car accident. As a result, his physical health was impacted as was his academic life.

It was difficult to establish a new normal when returning to school,” said Kofi. “It soon became clear to me that my traditional school was no longer a good fit for me. I made the decision to transfer to online learning to aid me in my recovery process and accommodate the pace I wanted to go at.” He said “It has been a great fit for me from the very beginning… I have accomplished just as much as any other student possible could, would, or can.”

As a state, we should be elated when a student finds a school and an educational setting that works. Instead – in Kofi’s case – we tell him that he’s worth less. We tell him that solely because of the type of school he attends, he’s only worth four-fifths of a person. We tell him that every other student in Michigan is getting additional funding this year to help them succeed, but students like him are the only ones getting less. We tell the same thing to 21,000 other students who are enrolled in a fully online charter public school. We tell them that Michigan feels their education is worth less.

Insanity, right? To be cutting funding for students who need support and services the most?

Yet that’s exactly what the state K-12 budget currently under consideration would do. It would slash funding for online public charter school students like Kofi by 20 percent while increasing it for every other child in the state.

The argument in favor of slashing funding for online public charter school students seems to boil down to this: “It doesn’t cost as much to educate them, so they should be worth less.”

That’s not only insulting, it’s untrue. The costs for educating virtual public charter schools students are different, not less. Hear that again: different, not less. The notion that simply because many virtual public charter schools don’t have a brick-and-mortar building that students attend every day, they should receive less funding, is shortsighted and uninformed. So, before the final vote is taken to slash their funding, let’s look at some facts.

First, every virtual public charter school has at least one facility. Some have multiple facilities where staff engage with students daily and are also available for direct in person student engagement.

Second – and this is important – only a small percentage of online students in Michigan are enrolled in a public virtual charter school. Parents and students have left traditional schools seeking a better learning environment that meets their needs. It’s ONLY students enrolled in a public virtual charter school that are having their funding slashed, while student enrolled at their home public school district attending a virtual program are not subject to this cut. Since they’re all virtual students, how does that make sense on any level?

Third, consider that all schools have many of the same costs no matter if it’s a brick-and-mortar school or a public virtual school. All schools have teachers and administrators that need to be paid, counselors and school support staff that need to be paid, general materials and textbooks that need to be bought, special education administration and oversight, and many others. All schools have these costs.

Here's where it is different. Virtual public charter schools have a host of other expenses that brick-and-mortar schools DON’T have. Such as:

  • Building a safe virtual classroom and management system for every student to learn safely at home and parents to be directly involved in their child’s education.
  • Professional development for certified Michigan teachers who were not previously trained in providing virtual education to K-12 students.
  • State assessment costs are astronomical for every public virtual charter in the state upwards of $1 million or more depending on student enrollment. State testing requires the renting of in-person testing facilities, transportation for students who need are in need and staff to proctor the testing. This is a result of local school districts not allowing virtual school students to test at their home school district.
  • Providing home technology for each and every student. Students are provided with laptops, iPads, headsets, and internet subsidies for students who are in need.
  • Additional expenses are incurred by mailing to every student curricular materials and manipulatives such as microscope for science class or art supplies for an art class. All to meet Michigan curriculum and standards requirements. This can be a cost of $250,000 or more.

All of the costs noted above come out of per pupil funding for public virtual charter schools. Unfortunately, they are not eligible to ask their community for a millage, or bond measures and are unable to access sinking-funds like traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Virtual charter school parents pay for the millages, bond measures and sinking funds for their local district and just want their virtual students funded equally.

So the notion that online public charter schools have less expense is simply not true. Should these cuts be realized, the first cut at the schools will be instructional staff who provide math and reading interventions, mental health supports, tutoring and direct student support services. These are some of the most vulnerable students in the state – kids with the highest needs – and those are the services for them that the state is looking to cut? It’s unfathomable and cruel.

If elected officials are looking at the bottom line, funding virtual public charter school students at the same level as other students is a relative drop in the bucket. If they’re looking to save money, don’t do it on the backs of 21,000 vulnerable public school students.

The governor has said that every student deserves equal funding and equal opportunity no matter their ZIP code or circumstance. Let’s get back to that idea.

Students like Kofi deserve nothing less, don’t you think?

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