By Diana Moore
State budgets have been hurting in a bad way. Across the country, legislatures continue to struggle to close deficits while still providing essential services. While cuts have been necessary, the wrong cuts can be devastating and ironically, very costly.
On the chopping block time and again has been online learning. This is due to the fact that, financially speaking, there’s a common misunderstanding about how online learning fits into public education. Unfortunately, it is viewed as an extra program, something schools and taxpayers pay more to offer. In reality, online and blended schools are simply alternative methods of delivering a public education. But because of this misunderstanding, legislators continue to go to online learning when making cuts.
So why is online learning a costly cut? There are three unique costs when budget cuts force an online program to close.
First, cutting funding to online programs can actually cost taxpayers more money.
When reduced funding forces an online program to close its doors, it’s likely the majority of students will return to traditional public schools. Each state has its own funding mechanism for online schools, but it’s typically safe to say digital programs receive funding from fewer sources than traditional schools and are therefore more cost-effective. (For example, in Washington, online schools typically don’t receive any local levy funding.)
Thus costs increase when students who formerly attended an online school are forced to transfer to a traditional school. In this situation, the only savings comes if students choose to opt out of the public school system altogether and attend a private school or homeschool. Students leaving the public school system should never be considered a viable cost-savings measure.
But even more important than the increased expense is the cost to students and their futures when online programs are cut.
While simply an alternative to traditional public school (and not an add-on), online programs have the ability to offer much more than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. They create opportunities where none exist, allowing students in every corner of America to get state-of-the-art instruction from world class teachers in subjects their local schools might not be able to offer.
They provide flexibility and customization that isn’t possible in a classroom of 30 students with a single teacher and a whiteboard.
In a nutshell, online learning opens a world of opportunity to every student wherever Internet access is available.
When an online school is forced to close due to funding cuts, the door to that world of opportunity is slammed shut. Kids are sentenced back to the 19th century education model their great-grandparents used.
When state policymakers cut online learning, taxpayers pay more and students get less.
The third cost of cutting online programs is to the state that moves backward in the education race while the rest of the country and world press on.
The only direction any society can afford to move in education is forward. That’s why digital learning—in all its forms—must be a priority if this generation and the next are to compete in today’s global idea economy and become tomorrow’s leaders.
Visit Cascadepolicy.org for more about online learning in Oregon and why Oregon’s legislature should continue to support expanding online learning options for public schools and public charter schools.
*Diana Moore is senior education analyst at the Freedom Foundation and director of the iLearn Project. She is a guest contributor for Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy organization. This article was originally published on GettingSmart.com.