Cyber Learning Complicates Charter Funding

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In the decade after Minnesota passed the nation's first charter school law in 1991, states typically made no distinction for funding purposes between students taught in classrooms and those who learn mainly at home.

So policymakers were often caught off guard when schools catering to home- based learners came forward to claim a share of the public education pie. But with distance learning increasingly going digital, funding for charter schools without walls is becoming an issue that is hard to ignore.

First came passage in 2001 of California's law curbing funding for nonclassroom-based charters. Then Pennsylvania lawmakers enacted new rules last spring targeting online charter schools, amid funding battles that had embroiled many school districts and the state education department.

In Ohio, the governor signed a bill last week that imposes new funding restrictions on cyber charters and orders a yearlong study of how those schools should be financed. And the Wisconsin state affiliate of the National Education Association is mounting a legal challenge to that state's first major virtual charter school, in part over funding issues.

"People are definitely looking at that handful of places to see how they deal with all the issues with these schools," said Todd M. Ziebarth, a policy analyst specializing in charter schools at the Education Commission of the States, based in Denver.

Meanwhile, groups including the Center on Education Policy, in Washington, and the Southern Regional Education Board, in Atlanta, among others, have begun offering policymakers advice about how to respond to the rapid rise of virtual schooling.

"I'm glad to see people seem to say there's a good reason to do it, now how should we do it?" said Barbara Dreyer, the chief executive officer of Connections Academy, a subsidiary of Baltimore-based Sylvan Learning Systems that operates virtual charter schools in Colorado and Wisconsin.

'Raiding Our Coffers'

Ms. Dreyer is among those who argue that virtual charters need as much money as their bricks-and-mortar counterparts, so that high-quality models can thrive. But other observers, including many teachers' unions, say some operators of nonclassroom-based charters are walking away with far too much money.

"These people are coming in and raiding our coffers," said Sen. Teresa Fedor, a Democratic lawmaker in Ohio who is a strong ally of the unions.

Ohio's nonpartisan legislative office of education oversight will be exploring the issue this year as it prepares a report on cyber-charter financing—an effort that Stephen J. Ramsey, the director of the Columbus-based Ohio Charter Schools Association, said he welcomes.

"There has been too much tendency to make uninformed guesses," he said. "It's time for us to get some real facts and figures."

In response to past disputes over per-pupil payments, Ohio's new law also requires that online charter schools get students' distance-learning equipment up and running before counting those students for funding purposes, and to report enrollment monthly instead of twice per year.

In Pennsylvania, which has eight virtual charter schools, the state education department now has exclusive authority for granting charters to such schools, a move aimed at bringing closer scrutiny to both the financial and programmatic details of such ventures. A panel of department staff members is currently weighing proposals for five new virtual charters.

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Vol. 22, Issue 18, Page 19

Published in Print: January 15, 2003, as Cyber Learning Complicates Charter Funding
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