Reconciling the Estimates

Does virtual schooling save money? As evidenced above, there’s no straightforward answer to this question, especially when it’s posed in broad terms. While some have estimated that virtual schools and online programs should cost roughly the same as conventional brick-and-mortar schools, and while some districts have reported that they failed to save money, recent research shows significant fiscal benefits. Nevertheless, it appears possible to reconcile these apparently conflicting results.

On the one hand, there are significant start-up costs in creating a new virtual school or program, especially if it’s a full-time online program. Many schools would need to develop new virtual courses, hire and train instructional personnel to deliver or facilitate instruction in a new way, maintain a reliable and robust network, purchase computer hardware and software, provide office space for onsite personnel and obtain room to store and house equipment.[29] These initial expenses may drive the projected costs for virtual schools and programs up to the level of traditional face-to-face programs in conventional brick-and-mortar schools.

On the other hand, virtual learning also has potential to reduce costs over time, and evidence from Florida and Pennsylvania suggests that both state virtual schools and virtual charter schools can operate at a lower per-pupil cost than conventional schools. These schools probably benefit from forgoing many of the extracurricular and school support services that brick-and-mortar schools provide, and from economies of scale in pupil-instructor ratios and overhead expenses. Of course, estimated cost savings for virtual schools and programs shouldn’t be assumed to apply to all students. Some children may not learn well in online environments, and the support services and extracurricular offerings that conventional schools provide may be of real value to them. Yet the research does suggest that many pupils can benefit from virtual learning, and that the savings in operating costs can be substantial over time.

[29]  Anderson, Augenblick, and DeCesare, “Costs and Funding of Virtual Schools” (APA Consulting, 2006), 10, (accessed Jan. 11, 2011).