The Cost of Cutting Online Learning

“The Cost of Cutting Online Learning” by the Freedom Foundation’s Diana Moore was originally published on GettingSmart.com.

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.

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  • Bob Clark

    New York Times economist Thomas Friedman wrote this past week, appearing in an editorial section of the Oregonian this past week, about the dramatic gains in education in both cost and quality provided by new on-line learning programs.  Harvard and MIT professors typically have lectured 50 to 100 students in the brick-and-mortars forum, but now they have launched successful on-line internet teaching programs where they literally lecture to over 1,000 students.  And the students in these on-line programs organize study groups amongst themselves to discuss what they have learned.

    The wave of the future for public education (on down to the elementary level) is becoming increasingly on-line learning coupled with tutoring and coupled also with social oriented clubs.  In its path lies the monster sized obstacle: the traditional public school monopoly (with its army of unionized teachers fighting against rationalization).    One of the surest ways to soften this obstacle, and free parent and child to choose the best education path for their child, is to make parent and child’s public education dollars fully portable (to not only traditional public schoools but also private and charity based schools).  In addition, public schools should be allowed to charge tuition for those families choosing to send their child out of neighborhood to a school like Benson High School, which excels at technical education.  Unfortunately, Benson High School has become a victim of Portland Public Schools’ equity dogma; and PPS is actually downsizing this school in high demand.  Equity is where everyone becomes equally underperforming if not poor.

    The rapid advancement of on-line educational programs and other educational medium should give pause to Portland Public Schools’ big bond plans.  Instead, Portland Public Schools should start conservative with its bond relaunch as going with a big bond risks spending public monies unnecessarily on the bricks-and-mortars of over 50 years ago.  (Giving Benson High School the right to charge tuition would give it a supplemental funding source to maintain and upgrade its building.)

  • Great article!   I don’t think we need to necessarily separate online schools from charter schools in general though– even offline charters are finding new ways to educate students with higher quality & greater cost-effectiveness.  (For more details, see my article today at https://5440fight.com/2012/05/20/two-words-missing-from-the-school-budget-debates/ .)

  • Tim Lyman

    It’s the future.  Get used to it.

  • Nothappy

    As a union member and a professional teacher I resent the implication that students can learn online. How is this possible? Why did I go to college for 6 years and learn to be a teacher if anyone who knows their subject matter can pop up online and do as well as I do?
    How will I earn a living wage then?

    What will happen to my students who need extra help after class, which I freely give unless it is 3:00 or later, as my contract day ends then.

    If kids can learn without me, what will happen to my union when I am unemployed and can no longer send them money automatically through state mandated payroll deduction?

    And if online works, how will the poor access this thing called the internet? They will need free computers and access, won’t they?

    And how will the students get their motivation? What will happen if they don’t have someone like me who is paid to care about them? And to help with their self-esteem. How can you get babied into thinking your worthwhile online?? Not going to happen.

    And, how can you feed someone online? Will we need to home deliver the school lunch and breakfast? I would think so.
    And won’t that cost a lot? I guess we could use the empty school buses to get that food out there. Or perhaps a home school food depot in every neighborhood, where the parents could just drive up and get the food a couple times each day.

    I knew I should have gone into art history, literature, or journalism. At least then I would have a good job.

  • LookingGlass

    What about this Khan Academy guy? Isn’t he something??