In the 2011 legislative session, legislators tried to “save” money by reducing the Basic Education Allocation (BEA) for students enrolled in Alternative Learning Experience Programs. (For background on the issue and debate, read our coverage here, here, and here.) Online public schools fall into this category, and online students’ BEA was cut by 15 percent.

Well, we’re starting to see the effects of that “cost-savings” move.

This week it was announced that the Steilacoom Historical School District will not renew its contract with K12, Inc. to operate Washington Virtual Academy (WAVA).

Online public schools provide choice, customization, 21st century learning, and more control for families, not bureaucrats.  WAVA’s closure in Steilacoom is a bad sign. Rather than moving forward in innovation and options, Washington is driving the innovators out.

Steilacoom’s history

Steilacoom was the first district in Washington to contract with K12, Inc., starting in 2004 with 25 students. As of last spring, enrollment exceeded 1,500.

According to a recent News Tribune article, only about 25 of these students live in Steilacoom. The majority use the state’s Choice Law to transfer their enrollment and take advantage of the program from wherever they live. State funding follows the student to the district providing services, making this one of the only school choices families have.

The funding debate

On the surface, it makes sense that online public schools would cost less than traditional public schools: no facilities, no buses, no food service, etc. So they should get less money, right? It’s not that simple.

First, prior to the funding cut of 2011, students enrolled in online schools were already receiving less funding. Including building, bus, facilities, and so forth, traditional public schools receive roughly $12,000 per pupil. Online public schools typically receive only the Basic Education Allocation—roughly  $5,000, now reduced by 15 percent. Meanwhile, they have the same staffing costs and unique technology costs.

The News Tribune reports:

“Former state representative Gigi Talcott of Tacoma, coordinator for Washington Families For Online Learning, said state funding cuts aimed at online programs have proven painful. She said school districts now get about $4,200 per student in state funding for online students – about $1,000 less per pupil than they get in basic education and materials funding for traditional students.

“That’s not enough to run a high-quality program,” she said.

Knowing this to be the case, in 2011 we cautioned legislators that making this cut would not save the state money since online schools might be forced to close and students would likely return to traditional public schools, costing the state even more. Cuts were absolutely necessary in the 2011 session, but this cut didn’t make sense—for students or financially.

With Steilacoom’s closure of WAVA, we’re seeing our predictions begin to unfold.

Fortunately, Steilacoom isn’t the only district to contract with K12. Using the same Choice Law, students can enroll in WAVA through the Omak School District.

Still, Steilacoom’s decision doesn’t bode well for the dozens of other districts that offer online programs.

The good news is that options do still exist, and a dedicated group of online learning families are hard at work to protect those choices.

The Washington Families for Online Learning Coalition is currently suing the state for restoration of full BEA funding for online students. They are arguing that it is unconstitutional to reduce state funding for one subset of public school students.


[Reprinted from the iLearn Project blog; feature photo credit: 19melissa68]