Commentary

Proposed Cyberschool Cut Doesn't Add Up

Equal funding should follow students to their choice school

In today's deeply divided political climate, it may be tempting to rally behind an education budget proposal supported by governors from both major parties. But in the case of cyberschool funding, the point of agreement remains fundamentally misguided and unfair.

The recent release of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's first school aid budget seeks to reduce funding for students enrolled in cyberschools, charter public schools that deliver most or all of their instruction online. The 20 percent cut would not apply to students enrolled in similar online programs operated by conventional school districts.

Gov. Whitmer’s predecessor, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, made similar attempts in his last two budget proposals. In 2017, he sought a 19 percent reduction of cyberschools' foundation allowance, money that comprises the core of Michigan public school operational funding. He upped the ante last year by calling for a 25 percent cut.

Legislators from Snyder's own party rebuffed both efforts, and may again need to stand up for fair funding that upholds parent choices. In 2018, parents of more than 12,000 students chose to enroll in one of Michigan's 14 cyberschools. This number represents less than 1 percent of the state's public school population.

These schools also serve a higher rate of low-income students than districts do: nearly 70 percent of cyberschool students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. Gov. Whitmer has made the case that students in poverty need extra state funding. But her proposed cyberschool cut would produce the opposite effect.

Online learning may not be the best option for many students, but it has worked remarkably well for some. It proved a lifesaver for the Smith family in DeWitt to overcome tragic circumstances. For the Mintons in Port Huron, their sons began to thrive in a cyberschool that adapted to meet their special health and other learning needs. Meanwhile, this education option has opened up a world of possibilities for the Hodsdon family of Ortonville.

Gov. Whitmer wants to boost school funding by more than $500 million, while cutting $22 million from cyber school students in the process. Her executive budget repeats the argument made by Gov. Snyder that these schools deserve less because of lower "facility, maintenance and transportation costs." (It's worth noting that the law does not require Michigan public schools to provide transportation services, though many charters and nearly all districts do.)

Gov. Snyder said cyberschools should be able to run for 24 percent less than brick-and-mortar schools, the only cost analysis introduced in Michigan's larger discussion. Yet even if the argument about the different cost structures was correct, the solution offered by the last two governors doesn't add up.

Even though they share the same foundation allowance rate as most districts, cyberschools’ per-pupil operating expenses were 28 percent lower than average district in 2018. That's because the foundation allowance is far from the only source of education funding. And Michigan cyberschools already have less access to these other sources of revenue, especially when compared with conventional school districts. With a cut like the one proposed by both Gov. Snyder and Gov. Whitmer, cyberschools last year would have spent about 42 percent less than the state average.

Parents choosing cyberschools shouldn’t be happy with this proposal, and lawmakers will likely be hearing from many of them if they move forward with this discriminatory funding cut. Parents may not be familiar with all the ins and outs of the state education budget, but they can grasp a key principle: the state should not discriminate against students based on the type of school they choose.