As the COVID-19 pandemic keeps many regular public schools closed, it should be a no-brainer that states would fund online public charter schools, which specialize in delivering instruction through distance-learning tools. Shockingly, however, some blue states are actually defunding these online charters.
In California, the legislature’s Democrat-supermajority passed an education budget bill that freezes online-charter-school funding at last year’s levels, even if online charters experienced student enrollment growth, which many have had because of increased demand of parents and students during the COVID-19 crisis.
Janell Smiley, board member of California Parents for Public Virtual Education, points out, “Online charter schools, in particular, have seen an unprecedented number of applications during the pandemic.”
“Many of these schools,” says Ms. Smiley, “have committed to enrolling thousands of new students, and as a result they’ve needed to hire teachers, purchase technology and secure the additional resources necessary to provide every student with a quality educational experience.”
“If funding no longer follows the student, school choice will be severely undermined in the state,” concludes Ms. Smiley.
By failing to fund every student, California lawmakers went against state court rulings requiring equal treatment for all students and state education reform laws that guarantee that funding must follow a child to the child’s new school. In light of these precedents, online charter schools have just filed a lawsuit against the state.
The lawsuit notes that even though “non-classroom-based schools will not be funded for the new students they enrolled, they are still required to serve them this year, and incur all of the expenses and labor costs associated with serving incremental [new] students, all the same.”
Classical Academy, one of the lawsuit plaintiffs, is an award-winning San Diego County non-classroom-based charter school, which combines options for in-seat learning and independent study remote learning. It will have more than a thousand new students this year that the state will not fund.
One of those new unfunded students is eighth-grader Alexis DeVault, who has dyslexia and requires special education services. She attends Classical Academy precisely because of the school’s successful history of teaching students remotely and because her previous school, which had shut down and moved ineffectively to virtual learning, had essentially denied her right to a public education.
“Schools that are best serving families in a time of unprecedented challenges are being left behind by the state,” warns Cameron Curry, CEO of Classical Academy. “In a year where every school is a non-classroom-based school, how can California justify not fully funding the education of students enrolled in a non-classroom based program?”
Sadly, California is not the only blue state failing to fund students in online charters.
In Michigan, the state has adopted a formula that bases 75% of a school’s per-pupil funding on 2019-20 enrollment numbers and only 25% on the actual current 2020-21 enrollment.
This formula defunds growing schools, such as online charter schools.
For example, Michigan Great Lakes Virtual Academy is a charter school which will have 400 new students for the 2020-21 school year, but the school will only get a quarter of the funding it would ordinarily receive for these students.
Mark Weinberg, National Charter Schools Institute vice president, observed, “For a long time, Michigan has embraced the ability of parents to choose where they send their kids and this [75-25 formula] certainly discriminates against that.”
“So,” says Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at Mackinac Center, “just when families need more flexibility and choices during today’s pandemic pressures, the 75-25 rule punishes schools and districts that work to provide them with quality, attractive options.”
“Education funds should support the schools and programs parents choose,” concludes Mr. DeGrow, “because they are offering what students need.” That principle should inform funding decisions not just in Michigan, but in California and other states as the effects of COVID-19 continue to reverberate across the country. Hurting children during a pandemic is simply wrong.
• Lance Izumi is senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute. He is the author of the 2019 book “Choosing Diversity: How Charter Schools Promote Diverse Learning Models and Meet the Diverse Needs of Parents and Children.”