Budget & Finance

One Big Reason Schools Are Ditching Remote Learning: The Cost

By Mark Lieberman — June 07, 2021 13 min read
Heath Oates, Superintendent of El Dorado Springs R-2 School District, says to drive through the the school district of El Dorado Springs in Missouri "from end to end could take 45 minutes." Much of it doesn't have cell phone service. His school district is all white. Students were given Verizon Hotspots so they could attend virtually.

Heath Oates, the superintendent of the El Dorado Springs school district, is in a fiscal pickle.

In his rural district in western Missouri where both cell phone and Wi-Fi service is spotty, a substantial portion of his students want to continue learning online next year.

But online education will be academically hazardous for his students and may be financially unsustainable for his district, Oates has concluded.

During this pandemic-stricken school year, more than half of the district’s online learners—all of whom had to enroll with an outside online education provider— failed a course. And Missouri’s legislature essentially gives districts less money for students who learn online, so the more students who choose online learning, the more staff Oates will have to lay off or programs he will have to cut.

If his students don’t return at all, either in person or online, the district will lose even more money, potentially resulting in more devastating cuts.

“From a new revenue perspective, those online students are more expensive,” he said.

As the spread of COVID-19 dwindles, states are returning to spending patterns that administrators and online providers have concluded will be insufficient for providing students with robust remote learning that can match or even exceed in-person schooling. In many instances, including in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, states historically have provided for online students less than two-thirds of the dollar amount each student learning in person gets.

What’s resulted is students using outdated or broken devices, sitting through mind-numbing prerecorded lectures, navigating rote quiz and worksheet assignments, and failing to find meaningful opportunities to interact with their teacher or their peers.

“There is a case to be made that kids who are learning at home require more support, not less,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education. “They may need more support in social-emotional services, skill development, mental health services, tutoring and interventions, which are expensive.”

A swelling number of parents this year, many of whom live in marginalized communities, have decided that online learning is the most convenient and comfortable learning environment for their child. And it’s the only way they’ll enroll their kid back into school.

Administrators are confronting the difficult balancing act of ensuring long-term financial sustainability and offering students meaningful learning experiences that suit their needs.

States slash online spending in an effort to get kids back to school

At the same time, legislatures this year have responded to vocal parents’ demands that school districts return to full in-person instruction. In some cases, they are fiscally punishing districts that continue to provide online options for their students.

South Carolina lawmakers as of last month were considering a bill that would only provide full funding to districts with less than 5 percent of their students learning fully remotely. For districts with more than 5 percent of their students learning remotely, the state would cut per-pupil funding by close to half for all the students above that 5 percent threshold.

Kansas schools next year, per the recently passed state budget, can request waivers for students to learn online for 240 hours if an “act of God” occurs. Otherwise students learning remotely part-time will get no state funding, and students learning remotely full-time will get $5,000 in state aid, at least $1,000 less than what the typical in-person student will receive. Remote students also won’t count toward a district’s overall enrollment, which could lead districts to lose per-pupil funding.

District leaders in Texas are scrambling this week, and several have already canceled planned online classes, after state legislators missed a deadline to pass a bill that would allow brick-and-mortar schools to receive state funding for online students going forward. Mike Morath, the head of the state education department, had previously called on the legislature to develop new policies for remote learning. Administrators now hope he’ll issue a waiver and prevent schools from having to piece together local funds for students who choose a remote option, according to a Dallas Morning News report.

These financial complexities and the current political environment have led many superintendents, including in New York City, Chicago, and Orange County, Fla., to tell parents in recent weeks they’ll offer little to no remote learning this fall.

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Tanya Holyfield, a second grade teacher with Manchester Academic Charter School, teaches remote students from her classroom on March 4, 2021, in Pittsburgh.
Tanya Holyfield, a 2nd grade teacher at Manchester Academic Charter School in Pittsburgh, teaches remote students from her classroom in March.
Andrew Rus/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP

Why it’s so hard to figure out how much remote learning should cost

At the heart of the dilemma, many experts say, is states’ misguided assumption that online learning is inherently cheaper than in-person learning.

“It’s easy for people familiar with traditional teaching and learning with a textbook to confuse online learning with just digital content, and thinking that that is much less expensive,” said Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the Aurora Institute, a nonprofit organization that helps school districts grow and improve their online offerings.

But that’s not always the case, especially for robust programs that don’t simply replicate watered-down versions of existing in-person instruction.

While it’s true that, depending on enrollment numbers in virtual school, districts can save money on transportation, they still have to pay salaries to teachers and administrators, fund special education services, and invest in high-quality technology tools.

The Aurora Institute estimates that for online students, schools should spend between 93 percent and 98 percent of the per-pupil allocation for in-person students.

A 2019 literature review by the National Education Policy Center finds a handful of examples of apparently successful virtual schools that operate at a lower percentage of the cost of traditional schooling. But, the study reads, “The lack of systematic and independent data in terms of the actual costs of virtual and blended schools could be one of the reasons why policymakers have been largely reluctant in the past to legislate or regulate this issue.”

Indeed, state policymakers approach funding online schools in wildly different ways.

A chart from the Aurora Institute comparing 2012 funding levels shows that in some states like Minnesota, districts got the same funding for online students as for in-person students, while in others, like Kansas and Georgia, online students get as little as half the funding their in-person counterparts get from the state. More recent data of this sort are hard to come by.

Luis Huerta, associate professor of education and public policy at Teachers College, Columbia University, advocates for an approach to funding online programs that starts from the ground up, rather than simply using an in-person program as the baseline.

Teachers are more likely to need extensive—and costly—training because many teacher-preparation programs don’t cover online instruction. Technology upkeep and maintenance requires specialized long-term planning. Online curriculum materials and programs have different pricing models than brick-and-mortar equivalents.

“Those things are apples and oranges” for classroom and virtual programs, he said.

What about the students who might benefit from an online learning experience?

Patrick thinks efforts to fund online students at lower amounts, or to penalize schools for allowing students to learn virtually, undermine local control and prevent students from accessing ideal learning experiences for their needs.

“There’s no research behind inflexible learning environments being better,” she said.

The push to fully reopen school buildings, embraced by politicians across the spectrum including U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, aims to ease widespread concerns about long-term remote learning. It also acknowledges the substantial toll that being outside of school buildings has taken on students and their families—particularly those in low-income communities.

What’s lost, though, is a deeper exploration of what investments would be necessary to fully support students who might benefit from remote learning—including some students with disabilities who learn better on their own than in a crowded classroom, students of color who want to avoid racial profiling they might experience from classmates, students with anxiety who aren’t comfortable speaking up or participating when surrounded by their peers, and even students from immigrant families who want to be able to learn at times from abroad.

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Some states, including Indiana, have told districts that during the pandemic, their students will get the same funding regardless of whether the district is educating them in person or online.

But starting a new full-fledged online program isn’t easy or cheap. Schools often need approval from their state education departments to even begin setting up a virtual equivalent to their traditional model. Finding teachers who are eager and qualified to teach online can also be a challenge, along with training existing teachers on new technology tools and pedagogical approaches.

In Colorado, even before the pandemic, individual districts could apply with the state to create their own online program for their students and a handful of out-of-district students. Multiple districts could also band together to create a centralized online program. In both cases, schools got the same per-pupil funding for online students as for in-person students.

The policy acknowledges the substantial cost of virtual instruction, and doesn’t shortchange districts that want to offer students that option, said Bill Kottenstette, executive director of the Colorado Department of Education’s Schools of Choice unit.

But state education officials still see room for the policy to evolve, away from a per-pupil calculation based on seat time, and more toward a stronger focus on outcomes of academic performance, engagement, and satisfaction.

“That’s an area we’re hoping to get greater understanding in the years ahead,” Kottenstette said. A growing number of districts have recently expressed interest in developing online programs, he said.

Demand for online-only education has swelled

Some districts might be limiting their potential to stave off enrollment declines if they choose to or are forced to abandon online learning all together, Lake said. Many states have maintained funding for schools based on pre-pandemic enrollment numbers, but some of those policies are likely to expire in the coming years, leaving some districts millions of dollars short of maintaining their prepandemic staffing levels.

Reports on the remote learning that took place during the pandemic suggest that many students suffer without an in-person instructional experience. But some families don’t want to give up online learning, and some school districts want to keep it going, even as politicians balk and financial concerns remain.

Online offerings can also allow small districts to offer niche courses to small groups of students, and give students more agency over the menu of courses in their schedule. If they’re organized at the state level, they can relieve districts and their teachers of the burdens of launching a new modality, as Connecticut Education Association members highlighted in a recent memo on priorities for spending federal relief funds.

Ultimately, in places where online students receive less funding, the threat of a “separate but unequal” education system along racial and socioeconomic lines is real, experts say. There are strong indications that students from low-income families and students of color are more likely to stick with remote learning than white students, even as those students are also more likely to lack adequate connectivity at home to engage with online instruction.

“We know the disproportionate effects of virtual learning on kids in low-income and minority groups,” said Huerta, of Teachers College. “With reduced levels of funding, those negative impacts would be exponentially higher.”

A small district ponders its intimidating options

Heath Oates, Superintendent of El Dorado Springs R-2 School District, says to drive through the the school district of El Dorado Springs in Missouri "from end to end could take 45 minutes." Much of it doesn't have cell phone service. His school district is all white. Students were given Verizon Hotspots so they could attend virtually.

In El Dorado Springs, the demand for online learning is growing even as the digital divide in the area persists.

Nearly half of the district’s 1,150 students—more than 800, or 70 percent, of whom are eligible for free and reduced-price meals— can only access the internet from home using a smartphone or a school-issued Wi-Fi hotspot. The superintendent has the same problem.

“I don’t have internet at home except through my cell phone,” Oates said. “I had to change carriers to get enough bars to even be able to do that.”

In 2018 and 2019, the district only had one full-time virtual student. But during the 2020 school year, 67 students enrolled in online learning.

Oates expects some of these students to return in person next school year. But he’s also heard from some families who want to continue with remote learning next year—including some who were using school-issued Wi-Fi hotspots this school year because they lack internet access at home.

He’s also seen indications that new families moving to the area might be more inclined to expect remote learning options, in part because they’re less embedded in the school community than longtime area residents.

That means the district may come face to face with the ramifications of a policy passed well before the pandemic. In 2018, Missouri passed a law permitting public school students to opt for a third-party online program of their choice.

School districts get funding from their state based in large part on the number of students they enroll. Public schools in Missouri get $6,375 per pupil from the state. Every time a public school student in Missouri chooses to learn online for the year, the district instead gets $5,993—or 94 percent of regular per-pupil funding.

Then, at the end of the year, the online provider charges the district $6,375 for that student’s enrollment, and the district pays that bill from its pot of state funds.

“This is a net loss in budgetary dollars for the online students, unless the district cuts staff or services,” Oates said.

Online students in Missouri don’t get per-pupil local funds. From one vantage point, then, the district spends less on students learning online than on students learning in person, who get roughly $10,000 per pupil from a combination of federal, state and local funds.

But the numbers aren’t always that straightforward. If a student fails an online course and has to prolong their enrollment in the outside provider’s program, the district ends up spending more. That happened a lot last year—51 percent of the district’s fully online students, including 63 percent of its high schoolers, failed at least one course.

The El Dorado Springs district has three options for offering online options going forward:

  • Continue with the status quo, allowing students to enroll in virtual courses or programs on the district’s dime.
  • Partner with an online program provider, with the district’s teachers working from the provider’s curriculum.
  • Develop the district’s own online learning program, led by the district’s teachers.

The latter option would be the most cost-effective for the district, Oates said, and potentially more beneficial to the students.

“Real people within a community that know the kids are likely to be more responsive and build better relationships than a teacher in another town,” he said.

But it won’t be easy. Private online learning providers in the region are lobbying for more direct access to public school students. Teachers will need more professional development to give students a more dynamic learning experience. And even with a broadband expansion initiative planned in the area, home internet access constraints will limit the district’s ability to create a successful online program for all the students who might benefit from it.

Oates is still waiting for more concrete data on the level of interest in online programs in his area. In the meantime, he’s excited about the creative models that could flourish under the broad umbrella of a district-run online program—especially if a recently announced initiative to expand broadband connectivity in the area comes to fruition.

“Having the option if you so choose to come to school for a demonstration, having the capability of live labs in schools—that hybrid flexibility might really be dynamic,” he said.

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