Georgia education headlines are too often made for wrong reasons. National test scores that disappoint, high schools that underperform and the recent Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal do nothing to recommend Georgia as forward-thinking and a place to create a business and raise a family. Embracing an aggressive plan to fast forward choices in education would seem like a no-brainer.
As the Foundation reported last week, two major online education companies will cancel plans to operate Georgia-based online high schools. Provost Academy and Kaplan Academy believe they cannot operate on $3,500 per pupil funding from the Georgia Charter School Commission. Those funds would have been state dollars; no local education dollars would follow the student.
Like brick and mortar charter schools, online education companies that want to establish a Georgia foothold face challenges to win their place at the education banquet. Both are asking for the right to earn a just small piece of the 1.65 million students in Georgia.
On one level this is about funding. On another level the substantial question is whether Georgia is ready to embrace innovative education platforms that supplement traditional classrooms. If so, Georgia becomes a national leader. If not, Georgia becomes a national laggard.
The 60,000 students in brick-and-mortar charter schools and the 6,000 in online education are no threat to traditional public schools, but the message they get is tepid, at best.
Brick-and-mortar charter schools authorized by the state must wait for the Georgia Supreme Court to decide whether local education dollars should follow a pupil who leaves a district’s traditional school for a state charter. Several school systems, including Atlanta, DeKalb and Gwinnett, sued this year to prevent local dollars from following the student. They lost and are awaiting a state Supreme Court decision on their appeal.
Online educators are asking for thousands less per pupil than public school districts receive in state, local, federal and all other dollars. But like brick-and-mortar charter schools, they have to fight for even a reasonable percentage of what regular public schools already receive.
Georgia traditional public schools on average received $8,261 per pupil in general fund state, local and other education dollars during the 2008-2009 school year (latest reported data), according to the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.
National per pupil compensation to online schools varies widely. Provost Academy Georgia and Kaplan Academy of Georgia would have received approximately $3,500 per online high school pupil.
Edison Learning, the parent company to Provost Academy, described Georgia’s funding as not enough “to adequately and appropriately educate students.”
Nationally, the per-pupil compensation average is closer to $6,000-$6,500, according to Renee Lord, president of Georgia Families for Virtual Education.
“It is real challenging for a school to offer a quality education for the level of funding the state is offering,” Lord said.
The Georgia Supreme Court charter school funding decision, expected this fall or next year, will be an important milestone to determine how online schools are funded, said Ryan Mahoney, board chairman for Georgia Cyber Academy. The school is the largest and currently the only online K-8 school in Georgia, with 6,000 students.
“Judge (Wendy) Shoob clearly found in favor of (charter) schools. Money follows the child,” said Mahoney, who is also public policy director for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.
“The same in our judgment would apply to virtual schools. If you are no longer in a brick and mortar school, the money should also follow the student.”
Georgia has struggled for years to overcome a reputation of lagging in the K-12 education arena, with students underprepared for the rapidly changing economy. The message was reinforced this week when the state reported 67 percent of Georgia high schools and 29 percent of all schools failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress under federal No Child Left behind guidelines.
The state needs more success stories. Its opportunity lies in embracing the future now: public and private online instruction as partners to strong traditional public school systems.
Klein is an editor with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank.