How States Can Improve Virtual Education Policies and Adapt During Coronavirus Pandemic
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How States Can Improve Virtual Education Policies and Adapt During Coronavirus Pandemic

School finance systems need to count students accurately, fund students equitably, and allow students and parents to seek quality, customized education options.

With the universal closure of in-person schooling this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many families are exploring virtual education for the first time. In fact, a recent USA Today poll found that over half of parents with school-aged children are considering switching to at-home learning if schools reopen this fall. Many families are likely expressing concerns for their child’s health, but others may be seriously considering online and home-based education as a viable option beyond the pandemic.

With so much surrounding the coronavirus and the upcoming school year in a state of flux, it is crucial that states carefully evaluate their policy frameworks for virtual education so that families and school districts have enough flexibility to adapt to the new educational environment in the years to come.

Students have been increasingly enrolling in virtual schools since virtual education programs broke into the market in the 1990s. As of the 2017-18 school year, over 500 full-time virtual schools were serving almost 300,000 students. There are also 300 blended schools —schools that employ a mix of in-person and virtual education— with over 100,000 students. Additionally, K-12 students were enrolled in an estimated 7.8 million online courses during the 2014-15 school year.

The online schooling model can be leveraged in many different ways. Virtual education can be offered full-time, serving all the education requirements that in-person schools do. They can be offered part-time, where students take individual courses online to supplement their in-person educations. Some programs also offer blended learning, where students receive a portion of their education online and the rest in-person.

The sponsors offering virtual education can be divided into three major categories: state virtual programs, school district virtual programs, and virtual charter schools.

State virtual programs are schools run by states and offered to students statewide. The biggest one is the Florida Virtual School (FLVS), which has over 400,000-course enrollments. FLVS allows students to enroll part- or full-time and allows school districts, and even other states, to operate their own franchises of FLVS.

District virtual schools are typically run by one school district. While some serve only in-district students, others offer courses to students statewide. District virtual schools are especially popular in rural states. For example, Kentucky has no state virtual program or virtual charter schools, but 90 percent of Kentucky school districts offer online or blended education and over 30,000 students took over 56,000 virtual courses in the 2018-19 school year.

Virtual charters schools are charter schools— privately-run public schools —that offer their education services primarily online. In Arizona, one out of every 25 students attended a virtual charter school in 2015.

Virtual education may be a good option for parents who don’t feel like it is safe to send their children back to in-person school. Beyond health concerns, many parents may have seen how well their students did this spring with at home or virtual education and want to pursue this model permanently.

Therefore, states should consider policies that allow virtual schooling to flourish and meet family demands. Moreover, they should provide a framework so that various private- and district-providers can innovate and attract students. To effectively implement these programs, they should first address a number of policy issues.

First, states with major barriers to virtual education should change their policies to allow families to choose virtual education if they desire. The 23 states with laws preventing the existence of virtual charter schools should discontinue these policies and instead allow families to choose from an array of options that includes virtual charter schools. In the states with laws allowing virtual schools, many still employ policies that place undue burdens on virtual education providers.

For example, California prohibits virtual schools from serving students that do not reside in counties contiguous to the school. And New Hampshire funds new virtual charter schools at a lower rate than they fund established virtual charter schools. These policies inhibit virtual schools from being able to serve families solely on the basis of their non-traditional education style.

Today, 11 states also employ a cap on the enrollment of virtual schools. For example, Virginia caps enrollment in its state virtual program, Iowa caps enrollment in school district virtual programs, and New Mexico caps enrollment for virtual charter schools.

States also have other more nuanced ways of limiting students’ enrollment possibilities. Michigan and Ohio cap virtual charter enrollment growth. Additionally, some of these enrollment policies inhibit students’ access to virtual education based on the school district they reside in. For example, Tennessee limits district virtual programs’ out-of-district student enrollment to 25 percent, and Oregon school districts may deny resident students from attending virtual charter schools if over 3 percent of the district’s students already attend virtual charter schools in other districts.

Families should never be stopped by the government from choosing the education model that best serves their students, especially during times of increased demand for education alternatives and heightened health and safety concerns. Furthermore, allowing some students to attend virtual schools but barring others from doing the same due to an arbitrarily-set enrollment cap is inequitable and unfair.

When considering the expansion of virtual education, as most states need to be doing during the coronavirus pandemic, states should ensure they are counting virtual students in the most accurate and sensible manner that also acknowledges the unique challenges we’re facing. Three states— Colorado, Georgia, and Oklahoma —count their virtual students using one or two “count days” in which the schools report attendance or enrollment on or around those days. Many others use “average daily attendance” (ADA) in which the number of days of students’ attendance throughout the year is divided by the number of days in the school year.

The use of ADA counts is likely the least optimal method for determining district funding, primarily because it can systematically shortchange disadvantaged school districts that often have chronic absenteeism problems outside of their control. Count days are also only a snapshot of a district’s student population because that population can fluctuate throughout the year. This will be particularly true next year as COVID-19 concerns impact daily attendance and potentially drive many families to switch school environments mid-semester.

States that measure students based on count days or ADA should consider, instead, measuring them by average daily membership (ADM), where the number of days of students’ enrollment is divided by the number of school days. The average daily membership measurement is better because if a student chooses to leave one school and enroll in another mid-year, neither school will be unfairly awarded or deprived of funding due to an improper student count. Since virtual schools often allow year-round enrollment, and this time of uncertainty may drive more families to change their choice of education mid-year, ADM is likely the most accurate reflection of students for which virtual schools need funding. Average daily membership can also allow schools the flexibility to employ innovations for students that may not be in compliance with the typical school day or hour requirements of average daily attendance rules.

Finally, with states facing major revenue shortfalls caused by the pandemic and recession, as well as increased demand for schooling from home, both funding equity and the portability of funding for virtual education students are going to be more important than ever.

States need to take a close look at their funding patterns as they consider expanding virtual education. In some states, like Arizona and Minnesota, when a student opts out of their traditional school in favor of a virtual school, the state funds that virtual school directly (although not necessarily at the same amount) and withholds the aid they would have otherwise given to the school district. But in some states, like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, the state continues funding the school district the family resides in and that district pays tuition for that student to attend the virtual school.

In Minnesota, the resident school district retains partial funds for students attending virtual schools outside the district. New Hampshire holds districts harmless when a student leaves their resident district school to attend a virtual charter school, funding the district for a student it is not educating in addition to funding the virtual school. Idaho does the same for its state virtual school. Both New Hampshire and Idaho’s double-counting policies are expensive and unsustainable in a time of increased demand for virtual education and are a consequence of a rigid funding system that ties funding to districts.

Instead, states should ensure funding is portable and that the money follows students wherever they choose to receive their educations.

Additionally, in Arizona and Maine students are funded at different levels depending on the type of school they attend—virtual or in-person. These policies should be reconsidered as they are inequitable and punishes families for choosing a school that is the best fit for their students. If students choose to enroll in supplemental online classes, funding should be proportional to the number of online classes in which they are enrolled. Overall, states should avoid funding patterns centered around school districts and schools. Instead, they should implement policies that equitably fund students directly.

It’s hard to say what the new normal is going to look like for K-12 this fall and for years to come. With a likely rise in demand for virtual education, states need reliable school finance systems that count students accurately, fund students equitably, and allow students and parents to seek the quality, customized education options best for them.

Julia Westwick is an education policy intern at Reason Foundation.