- Associated Press - Sunday, February 28, 2016

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - A north Alabama school superintendent said a state law regarding virtual schools needs to be clarified to allow state funding to follow the students.

Athens City Schools Superintendent Trey Holladay said this week that he believes virtual schools should receive funding if they are fully educating students, the Decatur Daily (https://bit.ly/1QAtVWm) reported. Two Morgan County superintendents say more time is needed to allow systems to get used to virtual school rules before any funding changes are made.

Last year, lawmakers approved a bill requiring all public high schools to have a virtual education component, either their own or contracted through another school or private company. That bill did not specify how funding would work.

“The idea was that superintendents could negotiate that among themselves,” said Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, who sponsored last year’s bill.

Now, Brewbaker has Senate Bill 229, allows state funding to follow students from their home districts to their virtual schools. He said his bill would be for students who are getting 100 percent of their education from virtual programs and aren’t attending their local schools.

Holladay said his system has been actively recruiting home-school and private-school students to its virtual program and brick-and-mortar schools. He said it has enrolled more than 300 such students this year. About 19 of them came from other public schools. He said they’ve been enrolled through a board-approved transfer policy and that the money did follow the students. The virtual program has enrolled students from as far away as Birmingham and Baldwin County.

However, Holladay said that in December, the Alabama State Department of Education said the transfer policy didn’t apply to students who lived more than 50 miles away. Since then, Athens has stopped enrolling students who live long distances away.

“We don’t want to enroll anyone else if we’re not going to get paid for them,” Holladay said.

State per-pupil funding is based on average daily membership, which is the average enrollment per district for the 20 days following Labor Day.

Holladay said that funding is worth about $5,400 per student. And providing virtual education costs about that much, “if done right,” he said.

Holladay told lawmakers they’ve encouraged school systems to be innovative, but that can’t happen without money. In 2014, Athens became the first school system in Lawrence, Limestone and Morgan counties to give students access to online courses.

Susan Kennedy of the Alabama Education Association said virtual schools should be paid for the services they provide, but not the entire state allocation.

“We do not need people snatching ADM dollars from schools,” Kennedy said.

The committee did not vote on the bill Wednesday but could next week.

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