School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era

A Working Paper Series from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute

Will the move toward virtual and “blended learning” schools in American education repeat the mistakes of the charter-school movement, or will it learn from them?

Try this thought experiment: How much more successful might U.S. charter schools look today if, at the beginning of the charter movement two decades ago, proponents had spent the time and effort to consider what policies and supports would be needed to ensure its quality, freedom, rules and resources over the long term? What mistakes might have been avoided? Damaging scandals forestalled? Missed opportunities seized?

We can’t go back in time for charters but we can be smarter about the next major phase of education reform and innovation: taking high-quality virtual and blended schools to scale—and to educational success. To this end, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, with the support of the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, has commissioned five deep-thought papers that, together, address the thorniest policy issues surrounding digital learning. The goal is to boost the prospects for successful online learning (both substantively and politically) over the long run.

In "School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era", Paul T. Hill zeroes in on the policy area most in need of reform if digital learning is to succeed: funding. “Our system doesn’t fund schools, and certainly doesn’t fund students,” he writes in “School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era.” “Yet to encourage development and improvement of technology-based methods, we must find ways for public dollars to do just that—and to follow kids to online providers chosen by their parents, teachers, or themselves.”

Hill explains why our current school funding system could cripple the promise of digital learning—and then proposes innovative solutions.  By consolidating education funding from different sources into a “backpack” model that follows students and creating debit cards that parents can use for online enrichment courses, the system Hill outlines would ensure that families can choose from a diverse range of robust schooling options.