By Bill McMorris | Virginia Statehouse News
ALEXANDRIA — Nearly 19 months have passed since lawmakers approved the state’s virtual education program, but Virginia has yet to establish a permanent funding system.
Lawmakers established the program with strong bipartisan support from Gov. Bob McDonnell, Senate Democrats and Virginia Education Association, the state teacher’s group.
School districts around Virginia have used the Internet and other tools to teach students from afar for more than 10 years, but the law opened the door to full-time state-subsidized classrooms. The program attracted more than 400 full-time students. Thousands more use online programs to take advanced placement classes and remedial schooling.
The legislation asked the state Board of Education to design a system to compensate school districts for admitting out-of-town students to virtual classrooms. But the board declined.
After several failed overtures to design a permanent funding system, lawmakers and education professionals hope to correct the funding issue when the 2012 legislative session begins Jan. 11.
“When we passed it, it was all about education opportunities as far as I was concerned, but we should have addressed the funding,” said the law’s author, Delegate Richard Bell, R-Staunton.
State school board member Chris Braunlich laid out a proposal to address the funding gap in a study for the Thomas Jefferson Institute, a nonpartisan, free market, public policy group based in Springfield. Braunlich is vice president.
“Funding for virtual education in Virginia is based on the state’s share of school spending,” he told reporters on a Wednesday conference call. “Ultimately, the state will have to pay more and, in the long haul, state funds would be inadequate.”
The state reimburses virtual classrooms on a per-pupil basis based upon the hub of the virtual school. As a result, online learning centers, which operate as publicly funded charter schools, have been established in some of the poorest areas of the state to maximize the state’s portion of funding.
One of the largest online learning programs is in Carroll County where the state pays $5,697 per pupil, more than double the state’s share in wealthier regions, such as Fairfax where schools receive $2,228 per pupil from the state. Under the existing funding structure, the state pays virtual schools Carroll County rates even if the student is from Fairfax.
State Sen. George Barker, D-Alexandria, said the system is ripe for abuse.
“What we have right now makes no sense … we’re cutting funding to traditional schools and, at the same time, spending exorbitant amounts of money to virtual schools,” said Barker, who serves on the Senate Education and Health Committee. “It was profitable for the companies and school districts, but we’re actually penalizing systems operated by districts getting less state dollars.”
Braunlich said the state needs to take a step back from traditional education funding structure to account for the cross-county line appeal of virtual learning.
“We need to treat kids as students without borders and fund them with the average state share of education funds,” he said.
His proposal would prevent charter schools from taking advantage of the state’s reimbursement system by providing average allotments of state and local dollars.
The program would cost the state $4,083 per student, and local districts would have to submit $2,559 per pupil, bringing the total cost to $6,642 per student — about $3,000 cheaper than the average state and local money spent on each student.
Braunlich presented his findings to a bipartisan group of lawmakers and educators following the November election. Bell, who was at the meeting, said it received a mixed response.
“The proposal has merit, but we need to get more creative,” Bell said. “I favor creating a separate virtual school district that will cover the entire state, so we have consistency and accessibility.”
Braunlich said the state should focus its creativity on holding schools accountable. His proposal would link local payout to performance. School districts would not have to pay a virtual school unless the student passes.
“If the student doesn’t pass, the local government doesn’t have to pay,” he said. “We need to create a new form of accountability, so taxpayers can ensure that funds spent for education are spent well.”
Some education groups said that does not go far enough.
“That approach assumes that the cost of providing a virtual education is the same as a brick-and-mortar school, but you don’t have a cafeteria, library, athletic fields or bus,” said Robley Jones, director of government relations for the Virginia Education Association, which represents more than 60,000 educators. “We need a more analytic approach to funding, to study the issue rather than base a figure off of brick-and-mortar systems.”
Jones worked with McDonnell and lawmakers to establish virtual school systems in Virginia in 2010, but he said he wants to return the focus of state budgeting to local school districts, while using virtual schools to reach out to rural areas and under-performing districts.
Barker said Braunlich’s proposal is “a step in the right direction,” but he prefers a system in which state and local money follows individual students traveling from district to district, rather than a blanket system.