Georgia Officials Reconsider Support for Online Charters

Published September 11, 2010

Georgia officials are taking a second look at the state’s restrictions on funding of online education after an initial ruling forced two virtual charter schools to postpone their first year.

The Georgia Charter Schools Commission in June ruled virtual charter schools should operate on less than $3,300 per full-time student in tax support. That initial dollar figure was derived from the state’s funding share for an average brick-and-mortar public school student. At an August 19 meeting, the Commission authorized a study to revamp the funding amount.

“We’ve gotten a clear signal that the state portion alone is not enough,” said the Commission’s executive director, Mark Peevy. “We’re looking for the right number that will give us quality virtual charter schools and a competitive virtual market.”

Delaying Operations

Operators of two virtual schools authorized by the Commission to serve in-state high school students—Kaplan Academy of Georgia and Georgia Provost Academy—both opted to delay their scheduled fall 2010 openings because the allotted funding was inadequate, they said.

New York City-based Edison Learning, Inc., which directs the Provost Academy project, posted a message on its Web site explaining the decision to postpone its September launch.

“Once the Commission provided new funding guidance, it became immediately evident that we would not be able to replicate the quality online education model that has already shown success,” the company said in the statement.

Georgia’s Commission has authority under state law to determine funding formulas for the charters it authorizes, using the state’s share plus an amount equivalent to the local share raised in the district in which the school resides. The applications from Kaplan and Provost were the first two virtual school applications the Commission considered.

“This was a relatively new concept in Georgia,” said Peevy. “It was putting a stake in the ground for the starting amount.”

Adjusting Amounts

Georgia Cyber Academy (GCA), a virtual charter school that has served K-8 students since 2007, also hopes to secure Commission authorization and a funding increase starting in 2011-12.  GCA currently receives about $3,500 per student to operate as a state-chartered special school.

“The economics certainly aren’t sustainable in the long term to operate a high school,” said GCA headmaster Matthew Arkin.

Peevy noted the Commission’s study must be completed and a new funding level approved by December in order to approve petitions to open schools in fall 2011. Interviews conducted for a 2006 report by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates suggested operating costs for virtual schools are “about the same as the costs of operating brick-and-mortar schools.”

The Virginia-based International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) identifies the typical funding for virtual education at about $6,500 per student. At that funding level the instructor and technology each comprise about a quarter of the cost, with curriculum at 20 percent and administration 15 percent.

“In order to run a high-quality program, teachers are the gold standard in online learning, “said iNACOL executive director Susan Patrick.

Pursuing Equity

For school choice supporters, parity is a chief concern in funding of cyberschool students. “I believe it should be as close as possible to what a Georgia public school student would get,” said David Pusey, director of Educated Georgia.

Patrick also expressed a desire for more equitable funding. He says the disparity in funding between a cybercharter and other public schools reflects more of a bias against charters in general than any particular animus toward online learning.

“Most states fund full-time virtual schooling consistent with their charter laws,” she said. “Charter schools may be suffering from inequity in funding, but at least they are funding all the charter schools the same way.”

Patrick labeled the Commission’s initial decision as “arbitrary” and said Georgia is an “anomaly” compared to most of the 25 states that fund students enrolled in full-time virtual schools. “We’re really pleased that they’re going back to the drawing board to look at the real costs associated with funding a student who learns online,” said Patrick.

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a think tank in Golden, Colorado.

Internet Info:
Georgia Charter Schools Commission:

Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, “20/20: Costs and Funding of Virtual Schools” (2006):