Educators debate Snyder’s proposed cyber school cuts

By ISAAC CONSTANS

Capital News Service

LANSING — Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposed budget pledged more state money to education, but that doesn’t apply to all schools.

Under Snyder’s proposal, online charter school funding would be reduced to 80 percent of the per-pupil subsidy that physical schools receive.

About $22 million would be transferred from publicly funded cyber schools to conventional brick-and-mortar institutes, a foundation grant exchange that has created controversy among Michigan educators.  

“The notion is, does it cost the same when someone is taking a class virtually compared to someone who is taking a class in a brick-and-mortar school?” Michigan Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Whiston said in explaining the rationale for the funding differences.

Virtual schools are publicly funded online charter institutes that have so far been funded using the same per-pupil formula as traditional schools, despite not having physical spaces to maintain, cafeterias to run or the responsibility to provide extracurricular resources such as transportation.

Many education officials do not believe that online schools operate with the costs associated with a conventional education.

“There’s no way that $7,500-plus per pupil they’re getting they have in cost,” Mason County Central Superintendent Jeff Mount said of virtual schools. “But I know I do. … I have to plow the parking lot when it snows, and I’ve got to mow the lawns and I have to do a lot of things that take costs, and they come out of that $7,500 we have per kid. And they don’t have those.”

Supporters of online education disagree.

“Funding institutions based on cost stifles innovation, and we’ve seen unmistakably that innovation is what leads to greater student achievement,” said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, the state charter school association. “We need to keep our focus on student outcomes, not funding institutions.”

Heather Ballien, principal of Great Lakes Cyber Academy, said she was pleased overall with Snyder’s prioritization of education but surprised that he chose to unequally fund cyber and traditional education.

Ballien said she deals with transportation costs herself regularly, when she has to send teachers to meet with students who need an in-person conference. Great Lakes Cyber Academy also provides internet subsidies for students and sets up 21 testing locations throughout the state, she said.

“We’re all aware of how programs are provided and where those costs go in a typical, traditional school district,” Ballien said. “But in a nontraditional school district, for instance a cyber school, it doesn’t cost less to educate our students; it costs differently.”

Michigan Virtual University, which offers supplemental classes across the state for districts that would be otherwise incapable of providing them, is funded separately and would be unaffected by Snyder’s proposal.

Within supplementary education, most enrollees choose to take a class or two while attending their local public school, which purchases the courses. Their taking a course at Michigan Virtual University does not diminish the foundational disbursement for that student to the district.

Organizations like Michigan Virtual University, a private nonprofit, do not substitute for a traditional education in most cases but still serve an important role, Michigan Education Association President Steve Cook said. These auxiliary sources of education have been of tremendous help in rural communities.

“Let’s say you had 10 kids who absolutely wanted to learn Latin as a foreign language,” Cook said. “Well, instead of that district having to go out and hire a Latin teacher and go through all of that, they can go to Michigan Virtual University and take their courses online. And that’s something that’s filled a unique niche.”

How the Legislature and governor choose to support online schools will help shape the state’s educational future, but it’s important not to rush decisions, president and CEO of Michigan Virtual University Jamey Fitzpatrick said. Online education, advanced by the state in the late 1990s, remains an unknown in many ways, including in costs and benefits.

“I think every state is going to struggle with this one, and I don’t have an opinion,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s so early in the game that you’re going to see this one evolve over time, and, like we’ve seen up until now, every state is going to take a slightly different approach. It will be interesting to see what state policy leaders do.”