Georgia House Throws Roadblock into Virtual Schools Funding Plan
The Georgia Charter Schools Commission knew it had a problem last year when two companies that operate online learning schools withdrew from the state because of inadequate per pupil funding. Then in December, the commission changed funding levels for next year students but that work may have been torpedoed by the House spending bill passed last week.
The House spending bill would provide $5,200 in state per pupil funding for students who leave traditional brick-and-mortar schools to enroll in an online learning school. That is $600 less than the $5,800 level that the charter schools commission board approved in December. Both figures would be more than this year’s approximate $3,400 funding level.
The House vote came as a complete surprise. “From an official standpoint, no one talked to me, no one talked to the commission,” GCSC executive director Mark Peevy said on Monday. “As the House was approving the budget last week this item popped up and made it through.
“We spent a lot of time looking at the number and firmly believe we had the right number with all the right folks at the table,” Peevy said. “It is certainly within the purview of the appropriations committee and the House as a whole to do this if they want to.”
Commission staff spent last summer and fall working to determine a proper state funding level for students after two online schools – Kaplan and Provost – withdrew from Georgia. Staff consulted with national experts, reviewed alternatives with state budget officials, met closely with political leaders and they kept constant communications open to virtual school operators.
The $5,800 per pupil funding level approved in December was considered a good compromise if somewhat below the $6,500 national average. There was consensus on the commission board and among education companies that the state had done what it could inside a very tough budget. The commission also thought it had buy-in across the street at the State Capitol.
Matt Arkin is head of school at Georgia Cyber Academy, which is the state’s largest online learning venture with 6,500 students this year and 8,500 planned next fall. He described the House vote last Friday as “another broadside” in the attempt to get fair per pupil funding.
“Virtual schools and all the Commission schools are part of QBE (the state’s education funding formula),” Arkin said. “We’re not a separate allotment anywhere. What’s the drive behind this? What’s to be gained? What’s the motivation to leave even more money back at the schools these students won’t even be at in the fall?”
The House spending bill is not the absolute final word. The Senate education appropriations committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday afternoon. “I am fairly certain this will be part of the conversation,” GCSC executive director Peevy said. The funding decision could come down to another compromise during the House – Senate spending bill conference process.
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
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