Funding advice for online learning

According to iNACOL, funding is the “single most important policy issue in online learning,” and the report goes into detail on several funding-related issues.

Online schools should be funded within the range of a brick-and-mortar school’s operating costs in each state. The report details expenditures such as technology components and technical support and cites still other reports that detail these expenditures.

The report notes that accounting and reporting should be freed from seat time and census dates. iNACOL believes that one of the biggest barriers to effective policy for online learning is the way funding is linked to student attendance. Most states predicate student counts on the idea that the student is in a physical classroom and can be counted in a census-like fashion. In online learning, students are most often not in a physical classroom, and therefore “the very language in such census exercises does not fit virtual learning, resulting in a lack of funding for online programs or the need to change accounting practices.”

A common alternative is to fund based on equivalencies (the online course is deemed to be equivalent to the face-to-face course and is funded at the same level). But the report says a more innovative option is to fund students based on outcomes.

“States that fund based on successful completion find that having defined benchmarks or milestones for incremental completion (for example 50 percent and 100 percent complete) provides a more rational and predictable approach than ‘all or nothing.'” For example, the Florida Virtual School (FLVS) has outcome-based funding; the school does not receive funding until students successfully complete each course segment.

Julie Young, FLVS CEO, offers this recollection: “In our early days of development, we were highly influenced by a 1992 Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) report. One quote we’ve returned to over and again says, ‘In our current system, time is the constant and achievement the variable. We have it backwards. Achievement should be the constant and time the variable.’ As we continue to evolve, we keep this central focus on achievement as our guidepost for development.”

In terms of student participation requirements, state law may set requirements for communications from students to make sure they are actively participating in the online school.

State-led supplemental programs, which have traditionally been funded through line-item state appropriations, should be shifted to a sustainable funding source, according to the report.

Along with noted policy themes, the report describes policies it would be well to avoid, such as requiring on-site or face-to-face instruction, mandating enrollment limits on the number or type of students who can enroll in online schools or online courses, and setting funding levels for online students well below funding of other students in the state.

There also is a section devoted to “Next Generation Legislation,” which lists elements of policy making that will lead to better online learning and start to pull away from “one-size-fits-all legislation.”

“The many intricate policy details and questions can be confusing, and certainly challenging to understand and explain,” concludes the report. “In fact, even when you find something that works in one state, there is no guarantee it will work everywhere. With so much local control and without national education standards, perhaps the best approach is to agree on promising frameworks for creating policy and then leave it to states and districts to create policy specific to their needs within those frameworks.”

However, the report does say that there is a “litmus test” for evaluating online-learning policy.

“Good policy answers two key questions affirmatively: 1. Does the policy hold promise for increasing student educational opportunities? and 2. Does the policy hold promise for improving student educational outcomes? If the answer to both questions is yes, the policy is likely to be beneficial.”



“Funding and Policy Frameworks for Online Learning” (PDF)

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Stimulating Achievement resource center. Learn how to make wise spending decisions and keep track of school needs as stimulus funds become available. Go to: Stimulating Achievement