Opposition to Online Charters Misguided

To most people, eliminating artificial caps on the number of Michigan students allowed to benefit from online public charter schools seems like a no-brainer. Indeed, many people I talk to are surprised to learn such caps exist, and puzzled by some politicians in the state House working to stop or water-down a bill eliminating the caps. The legislation has already passed the state Senate.

One line of attack is a threat to reduce the amount of money these schools get from the state for each student, on the assumption that online schooling cost less than conventional brick-and-mortar schools. A new report published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute gives valuable insight on this.

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The report estimates that full-time online schools spend anywhere between $5,100 and $7,700 per student on average. Expenses for labor, content acquisition and development, infrastructure, technology, operations and individualized student support are factored into these estimates. The findings are similar to those of a different online learning study published late last year, and a Mackinac Center study of digital learning.

The authors of the most recent Fordham study wisely caution readers not to draw broad conclusions, warning that there is “no definitive cost” for online learning. The report is based on what some current online schools actually spend, and doesn’t try to guess what they should spend.

The same problem applies to conventional brick-and-mortar schools, where many studies have shown that spending levels have little relationship to student performance.

Fordham’s scholars say the focus of digital learning shouldn’t be to just reduce costs, but rather to get more student benefit for the dollars that are spent. Given exploding parental demand for these programs, and their potential to customize learning for each individual student, online schools have the potential to greatly boost this kind of productivity, benefiting both students and taxpayers.

For example, if online schools can cut noninstructional spending including transportation, custodial, maintenance and building costs, that means more resources can go directly to things that enhance individual student learning.

All this can seem threatening to the politically powerful beneficiaries of the conventional public school status quo, including unions and superintendents, which explains efforts by some to derail progress. This is misguided on many levels, not least of them being the potential for online learning to make the jobs of educators much more satisfying.