Despite growth, online charter schools get short shrift

Youngsters receiving instruction online during the pandemic. (Photo: adriaticfoto, via Shutterstock)

Back to school time typically comes with its own host of challenges, from making sure you’ve purchased all of the required school supplies to helping your child readjust to an early morning wake-up call.

But this year is different. Many Californians are continuing to adapt to the “new normal,” and that means the way they are choosing to educate their children is changing too.

As COVID-19 cases inch towards 600,000 in the state, and growing evidence suggests children may not be as immune from the virus as previous thought, many families are seeking alternative educational options for their children. As traditional school districts hastily adopt distance learning, many parents are turning to full-time online charter schools to ensure their child receives the best possible online learning experience.

Fifty-six percent of California charter schools, or 453 schools, have seen an increase in student enrollment in the last year.

Unfortunately, the budget supported by Governor Newsom and the California Legislature greatly undermines parents’ right to choose the best schooling option for their child. During the COVID-19 era, that is very troubling.

Historically, the state has based its educational funding on a per pupil basis according to “average daily attendance,” which means the money follows the student to the school they are currently attending.

The new law changes how funding is appropriated for the 2020-21 school year, using the school’s average daily attendance as of February 29, 2020 to determine funding.

That means the new funding calculations don’t take into account the number of students that may have transferred to a different public school due to concerns related to COVID-19. As a result, some failing districts may receive money for “phantom” students, while growing districts get the shaft.

This is an educational crisis in the making.

Fifty-six percent of California charter schools, or 453 schools, have seen an increase in student enrollment in the last year. Online charter schools, in particular, have seen an unprecedented number of applications during the pandemic.

Many of these schools 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.

Unfortunately, if the funding issue isn’t addressed more than 52,000 children will be stripped of public school funding. Tight budgets will mean some schools simply won’t be able to honor their enrollment commitments, forcing many students back into failing—and potentially unsafe—schools.

If funding no longer follows the student, school choice will be severely undermined in the state. Funding will always lag behind for these schools, and unfortunately, it will impact the educational services these schools can provide, and the number of future students they are able to serve.

This issue also disproportionately impacts minority and low-income students, as many rely on choice schools as a means to escape their failing neighborhood school.

Our elected officials say they want to improve equity in our state’s education system, but failing to provide adequate funding for public educational options is certainly not the way to do it.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I know the California Legislature is trying to do its best to balance a budget shortfall. But, balancing a budget at the expense of the educational future of tens of thousands of California students isn’t the answer.

Lawmakers must act quickly to ensure growing California public schools have adequate funding to meet increased demand. I’m calling on our elected officials to do the right thing—reevaluate the attendance funding structure to account for new growth before its too late.

Editor’s Note: Janell Smiley is a resident of Santa Rosa, a board member of California Parents for Public Virtual Education, and author of “…As Long As You Don’t Turn Them Into Weirdos.”

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