K-12 virtual learning has a promising future. It has been shown already to match or exceed average student outcome expectations, and parents and students are signing up for virtual courses at an increasing rate.

From a policy perspective, online learning also promises something relatively rare in the long history of taxpayer-funded K-12 public instruction: providing the same or better service at a lower cost. Universities have demonstrated the ability to achieve this, and recent analyses of several states that have expanded online opportunities show that these systems save money.

Indeed, under the right circumstances, school districts could immediately start saving using virtual learning. If districts need to create a new class, they are often left with only two options: hire a new teacher (part-time or full-time), or reassign one of their current teachers (who must be properly certified and below the contractual maximum work load). Both these options will add significant costs. Reassigning a current teacher — probably the least expensive option — could cost about $10,000, based on the average Michigan teacher salary and common labor contract rules. Hiring a new, full-time teacher would cost most districts at least $50,000.[*]

If, on the other hand, the districts can avoid creating a new class by enrolling students in virtual learning courses, they could conceivably save thousands of dollars. Based on the average course fees charged by MVS and GenNET, for instance, districts could enroll 10 students in year-long Michigan Merit Curriculum courses for $5,500 or less. Districts might have to shift some personnel around if they plan to facilitate this virtual learning in school district-owned buildings, but it is likely the districts would still save money compared to the cost of hiring or reassigning instructors to teach these courses.

The demand for additional educational opportunities in this state has consistently grown. Virtual learning appears to be a flexible, affordable and effective way of helping satisfy this demand.

[*] The Michigan Association of School Boards reports that the average starting teacher salary in Michigan was $36,798 in 2009-2010, and the average teacher salary in Michigan in 2008-2009 was $62,237, according to the Michigan Department of Education. “Teacher Facts and Figures” (Michigan Association of School Boards, 2009), http://erin.masb.org/ index.cfm?mod=teacherfacts (accessed Jan. 24, 2011); “2008-09 Bulletin 1014” (Michigan Department of Education, 2009), http://www.michigan. gov/documents/mde/b1014-09_319752_7.pdf (accessed Jan. 24, 2011). In addition to the teacher’s salary, the school district would need to pay medical benefits, retirement benefits and various federal taxes.