Budgets take aim at online, alternative school programs
Legislators propose 10 to 20 percent cuts
Originally published April 13, 2011 at 2:01 p.m., updated April 13, 2011 at 6:58 p.m.
A deficit-busting move by state legislators in Olympia has advocates of alternative and online learning programs run by public schools crying foul, and fearful for students’ options.
The two-year budget plan passed by the House on Saturday strips $53 million from state basic education dollars that have flowed to pay for each student enrolled in a grades K-12 alternative program.
The plan removes money allotted to cover costs of “school-level secretaries, janitors, buildings and grounds staff” for alternative programs, while doubling the technology component for alternative programs, reflective of the surge in online instruction.
The changes would “prorate” the state’s basic ed per-pupil support at 80.1 percent for all Alternative Learning Experience (or ALE) students — nearly a 20 percent reduction applied to some 55,000 of Washington’s roughly 1 million public school students, including a few thousand in Clark County.
That sets a misguided, “unconscionable” policy, one that possibly violates the state constitution, one alarmed critic said.
“It’s a historical precedent never taken before, to cut basic education (dollars) for a targeted group of students,” said Gigi Talcott, former longtime Tacoma legislator and House education committee chairwoman who now serves as Washington Families for Online Learning coordinator.
(The novelty didn’t last long: A proposed Senate budget plan issued Tuesday would cut ALE spending by 10 percent, to save $25.8 million).
Locally, the ALE reduction would affect:
• Alternative high schools, such as Lewis and Clark in Vancouver and Legacy in the Evergreen district;
• The online Virtual Learning Academy run by the Vancouver district, and Evergreen’s much larger iQ Academy;
• All hybrid and parent-partnership courses, such as the Battle Ground district’s CAM Junior-Senior High School, and its HomeLink and River HomeLink programs.
Talcott blasts the proposed funding cut for attacking a “vulnerable” student group most likely to drop out from school, if not for the innovative learning programs. “It’s a real tragedy for kids who have failed in the traditional system and finally have an opportunity in the ALE system,” she said.
Talcott said lawmakers made unfounded assumptions that alternative schools require less staff support than do traditional brick-and-mortar schools. She cites one effective alternative program that has Bloods (gang members) attend during the morning, the Crips in the afternoon. “You don’t think they need a security worker there?” she said.
Her group asked for a legal opinion from a Seattle law firm. In no uncertain terms, the firm denounced the proposed budget cut: “The lack of any specific cost analysis or evidence supporting the concept that an immediate 20% cut in this one basic education program, relied upon by some students to meet their basic educational needs, renders the proposal constitutionally indefensible,” states the opinion from Ellis, Li & McKinstry.
Blow to innovation
School districts asked to cover the 20 percent gap might instead choose to shut down valuable alternative options for students, program supporters say.
“It throws us in jeopardy,” said Colleen O’Neal, principal at the award-winning CAM campus in Battle Ground, now in its 18th year of operation. She called the proposal “deceptive,” as it’s really a 20 percent hit on top of other K-12 classroom reductions made in the budget plan.
“It was going to make it difficult for me to cover my basic building and salary expenses,” O’Neal said of the comprehensive K-12 reductions. She’s even more vexed by the ALE proposal.
“I’ve got two award-winning schools, here,”said the eight-year CAM principal, who also leads the district's HomeLink school. “I have secretaries, nurses, medically fragile kids, special needs kids. I’m trying to figure out where (legislators) think we don’t have these costs.
“To put this kind of a hit on the backs of alternative kids is mind-boggling,” O’Neal said. “Especially since all we hear (about school reform) is trying to do innovative things, doing things differently, not having a one-size-fits-all (program).”
Between CAM, the HomeLink and Summit View schools, the ALE reductions could affect about 1,000 students, who constitute 10-12 percent of the entire Battle Ground district enrollment.
O’Neal has hustled to keep school parents informed and rallied them to press legislators for help, to “let them see why we don’t understand that our students would be less valued. We’ve been very active trying to let them know our students matter,” she said.
They are part of a statewide call-to-arms that has home-school, online and alternative program families rushing to lobby Olympia.
O’Neal said 18th District state legislators are supportive, “but we’re a small part of the state.”
It’s a more dire version of 2010, when legislators floated a plan to strip ALE funding for all pupils in grades K-6. They instead tweaked a statewide school bus depreciation schedule to find desired savings.
This year, there may be no such reprieve. Talcott concedes that she and other legislators didn’t set tough enough controls on some alternative learning programs authorized in recent years, where state payments to support students’ physical education and other curricular needs have reportedly been misspent.
She’s gotten Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, to introduce House Bill 2065, which would mitigate the ALE cutbacks. HB 2065 was to receive a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on Wednesday. There’s still time to influence a final budget agreement by moving to crack down on excesses, while sparing the most damaging ALE cutbacks, she said.
“We have an opportunity here,” Talcott said.
Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or email@example.com.