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Online class funding would vary sharply among Idaho school districts, under new laws

A quirk of the "Students Come First" school reform law's complicated formula for shifting funds from school districts to online course providers means that the providers will get far more money for providing classes to students in some school districts than in others. For example, an online provider sending a class to a high school student in Boise could tap roughly $210 for a one-semester online class from the Boise district's state funding stream, while a provider sending the same online class to a student in Midvale could collect roughly $733 from that smaller district's state funding.

Here's why: The law, under this year's SB 1184, allows students or their parents to enroll a student in any approved online class, with or without their school district's permission. Then, the provider of the online class is entitled to two-thirds of that district's state funding for the student for that class, while the district keeps one-third, to cover its costs for providing a classroom, a proctor, or other fixed costs for the student, who likely would take the online class on campus during the school day. The formula is dubbed "fractional ADA;" it would apply unless the school district has a contract with the online provider setting a different payment amount.

The complicated formula through which Idaho sends state funds to school districts based on ADA, or average daily attendance, has many factors that cause it to vary by district, however. Those include the size of a school district, to reflect economies of scale in larger districts and fixed costs in smaller districts; the distribution of students across different age categories from kindergarten to high school; and the experience level of the district's teachers and administrators, which also triggers differences in state funding.

The result: For high-school age students, state funding per ADA varies from a low of $4,334 per student per year at the Idaho Virtual Academy, closely followed by the next-lowest Caldwell School District, at $4,757 per student, Vallivue at $4,780 and Kuna at $4,789; to a high of $17,595 per Midvale high school student. The South Lemhi school district gets $17,470 per high school student; Culdesac gets $16,897. (All these figures, by the way, are based on state Department of Education finance guru Tim Hill's calculations for the 2009-2010 school year, so they're not the absolute latest, but Hill considers them a good basis for comparison.)

The state's largest school districts are on the low end for ADA. The Meridian School District gets just $4,843 per high-school student; Boise gets $5,047; and Coeur d'Alene, Lakeland and Post Falls school districts all come in just under $5,000.

The issue came up at the "Students Come First" technology task force meeting today, as state Department of Education official Jason Hancock demonstrated an example: In Middleton, an online provider would get $191 for a one-semester high school course; if the class costs more, parents would have to make up the difference. Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, who serves on the task force, said, "So I think if I were a provider, I would first concentrate on these districts where this credit is worth a lot more money. I wonder if you've explored the idea of a cap."

Hancock replied, "That's how the legislation reads. It's just built around essentially what an ADA is worth ... and it is different from district to district." He said that's why a subcommittee of the task force is looking into statewide contracts with online course providers, to secure lower rates for smaller districts that are more comparable to what larger districts would pay.

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna said, "We'll learn a lot once these laws are in place, and I think that's what we want to do, is learn from actual application of the laws, not make changes based on what we think may happen. ... I don't think we've seen a perfect law yet."

Hill said most students are likely to take online classes for which their districts sign contracts. "None of us know how many families are going to say, 'I understand what you're offering, district, I'm just not interested. I demand for my child to go take these other classes.'"

Hancock said that provision was included in the "Students Come First" law as "another example of providing parents with more choices." He said, "Parents know best what is best for their children."

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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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