If you’re in charge of building or planning for a virtual program in your district, you know the state policy decisions, funding idiosyncrasies, and sheer number of options are enough to make anyone’s head spin. “Every state is so unique in the way that they provide funding,” says Teresa King, Director of National Partnerships for ASU Prep Digital. “That sort of unique state funding model impacts what districts can do around virtual education.” But there is encouraging news. “If you have funds to spend, there are ways that you can get creative,” says Christy Cleugh, Director of National Partnerships for ASU Prep Digital. “This is regardless of whether your state supports and specifically funds virtual learning or not.”
Both longtime veterans of virtual education, King and Cleugh have experience in developing virtual education programs from the ground up. To date, they’ve helped dozens of schools launch successful, high quality, and fiscally responsible virtual programs through partnerships with ASU Prep Digital. Here are three strategies they recommend for building a high quality virtual program that maximizes your district’s funding.
Get creative with your funding.
Funding models across the country vary wildly, based on district, region, available supplements, and debates over how funds should be used to support public, private, and charter schools. “Each district is facing its own battle when it comes to this,” says King. “As a public school district, you can’t just decide that you’re going to build a virtual program without some lever for funding.”
Despite challenges, there is room to get creative in how you might use the funding your district has secured. “Many districts have a general fund that comes into the school district that’s supposed to be spent on curriculum or salaries,” says Cleugh. “There are ways to take the curriculum funds and spend them on things like digital courseware.” For example, many districts offer curriculum adoption funding which can often be used to secure digital courses to support your virtual program.
“No technology can replace a dedicated teacher. And personnel costs to staff a district virtual school can be daunting, but they don’t have to be” says King. One solution she suggests is to use funding set aside for staffing or salaries for a program or partner that takes care of staffing high quality, professionally certified teachers to work with your students. With this method, you keep all of your student funding in your district and avoid the high costs associated with hiring full time staff.
Consider working with a partner.
If you’re new or unfamiliar with setting up a virtual program or vetting digital curriculum, finding a partner might be your best option. But not all partnerships are created equally. “Some providers may have regional agreements where they literally take the school’s and the district’s per-pupil funding,” says Cleugh. “I recommend seeking partners that do not seek a portion of that funding.”
Unfortunately, one model she sees frequently is virtual providers operating as a charter within a district, taking up to 40% of a district’s per-pupil funding. Instead of giving providers access to your state funding, she recommends finding a partner who will enable your school to license curriculum through a direct payment or similar arrangement. “This allows for district-level control,” Cleugh says. “You can have a provider take over your kids completely, and you have no control,” she explains, “Or you could partner with providers that are actually there to support your local communities, your local students, and their outcomes.”
In addition, partnering with a provider is one of the most economical ways to maximize your district’s budget. “When we talk about keeping your funding in your district, one of the ways to do it is to leverage providers who can staff your virtual school for you,” says King. “That’s because the costs on that are a lot lower than trying to maintain salary and benefits on full-time virtual employees.”
Combine resources with nearby districts.
Think that building a successful virtual program is out of the picture for your small or rural district? Think again. Last year, King spearheaded a program that organized a consortium of districts in rural areas of North Dakota. “By combining efforts, we reduced redundancies, which means we can start to operate at scale for a lower cost,” King says. “This strategy works especially well for small or rural communities looking to set up high quality virtual programs for their students.”
If you’re thinking about exploring this route, start by reaching out to other district leaders and collaborating on how to pool resources. “One thing I think traditional districts overlook is that once your students are online, their teacher doesn’t have to live in the same county as the students,” says King. Small districts often have limited instructional resources simply because there’s not a lot of people in each county. She advises districts to work together and share resources, especially virtual instructors. “In these situations teachers can effectively live on the other side of the state, because those superintendents have made an agreement together to help cover costs with each other,” says King.
What to prioritize?
With seemingly endless options for virtual programs, where should district leaders begin? One of the most important factors to consider is your instructional model. “Your students’ success, your parents’ buy-in, and your continued existence will be contingent on the power of your instructional model,” advises King. “You cannot have an online program without online teachers.” Beyond that, districts should work with partners invested in a long term relationship. “That’s something that’s really important for us at ASU Prep Digital,” says Cleugh, “We know that if a district partners with somebody and is unhappy after a year, transitioning to a new partner will cost a lot in terms of the success of your students, retraining educators, and the trust of constituents.”
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ASU Prep Digital is an accredited online K-12 school providing districts with single online courses or full-time virtual programs. For information about partnering with ASU Prep Digital, please email email@example.com.