Kansas policymakers face a crossroads, and their choice will affect the fate of public schoolchildren across our state. The State Supreme Court has directed lawmakers to correct funding inequalities among traditional public schools by increasing funds for poorer districts. But in their scramble for resources, lawmakers are eying the worst possible revenue source: Virtual public school children, themselves already underfunded.
As parents of both traditional and virtual public school students, we have some insight into legislators’ conundrum. We agree that Kansas owes its public school students — regardless of their community’s economy — a high-quality education supported by fair and full funding. But our state’s educational promise extends to the approximately 6,000 full-time virtual public school students as well.
For some families in the state, virtual learning is the only public school alternative available. Parents who discover that their neighborhood public schools don’t work for their children can turn to virtual schools as another option. As our family discovered, that option is highly personalized and flexible to its students’ needs.
Our family includes nine children: four biological children, a sibling group of three children and another sibling group of two — both groups adopted from our local foster care program. So we offer something of a microcosm. To understand how different children and their unique needs are, we need to look no further than our own living room.
My oldest son enrolled in IQ Academy, a virtual charter school affiliated with Manhattan High School, six years ago. His younger sister followed in his footsteps two years later. My son thrived academically, graduating second in his class. My daughter discovered the unique chance to pursue her passion for writing. Under the guidance of a language arts teacher, she is completing a course that allows her to write her first full-length book. With both children, we’ve enjoyed unprecedented one-on-one contact with teachers and administrators. And because the experience encouraged my older children’s strengths, my rising seventh grader also plans to enroll in the program this fall.
Meanwhile, we also have four children in traditional public school. They participate in band and high school athletics and succeed academically as well. They thrive within the larger environment and enjoy the experience of traditional public education.
Having public school options ensures that each child has an education that fits, but it also improves overall quality and opportunity. Virtual public schools give traditional public schools some healthy competition, driving both to offer the highest quality education possible. In addition, virtual public schools offer students certain courses, particularly Advanced Placement opportunities, that some smaller traditional public schools can’t provide.
So, our children’s diverse needs, as well as the needs of thousands of others across the state, make public school options a necessity. We don’t want to see virtual public education disappear. But if legislators move forward with cutting funding for virtual schools, that may well be what happens.
Virtual public school students are already funded at a level far lower than their peers at traditional public schools — $7,385 less per pupil, to be exact. They’re even underfunded compared to other virtual public school students; Kansas virtual students receive roughly $1,000 less than the national average for full-time online students.
But the situation now morphs from an issue of fairness to an issue of sustainability. We know that funding reductions will affect the ability to keep committed teachers on staff, will increase class size and reduce school services, and will impose cuts to course offerings.
Kansas legislators, you heard our Kansas parent voices loud and clear at this week’s Appropriations Committee hearing asking you to please take another path. Fair funding is a laudable goal, but only when it fairly includes all of Kansas’ public school students.