Courtesy: APLUS+
CORE Butte Charter is a personalized learning public charter school located in Chico.

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For the last two years, Covid destabilized the traditional education system, forcing everyone out of their traditional roles. Almost overnight, students became distance learners, parents became part-time teachers, and teachers literally brought the classroom home.

During the pandemic, some parents learned something very important. After experiencing a form of personalized learning, they found a nontraditional education offered a better method for their children to learn as it provided more individualized instruction.

The personalized learning model is rooted in flexible and adaptable delivery options in how, what, when, where, and with whom each student learns. The California Senate passed Senate Resolution 36 in 2004 officially recognizing personalized learning as “an innovative and distinguished learning model and choice in California public education,” further providing defining and distinguishing characteristics of the model. And now, while most students have returned to traditional classroom learning, other students have not. A growing number of parents have decided that the setting is less important than the academic progress their child is making.

The key takeaways: Learning is not one-size-fits-all or one-location-fits-all. Learning delivery that can be personalized, flexible and adaptable both for students and for unforeseen external circumstances is critical now and into the future.

Rather than incorporating that newly realized insight into state education funding, the state education budget does not treat all schools equally. Currently, the joint legislative budget agreement would allow school districts and classroom-based public charter schools to use a modified version of the 2021-22 average daily attendance to determine funding for the 2021-22 school year. This hold-harmless provision enables these schools to recover some of the losses that resulted from decreased enrollment due to the pandemic this past school year. It also provides all school administrators and decision-makers with a stronger and more stable fiscal basis for making critical decisions around hiring or reducing staff and teachers, expanding or contracting instructional programs and options, and creating mental health and other wraparound student support services that have become so critically important during the pandemic isolation of students. All school administrators, whether operating classroom-based or nonclassroom-based education models, are challenged with similar critical decisions about their programs moving forward.

Unfortunately, the more than 300 nonclassroom-based public charter schools in California that demonstrated the success and benefits of personalized and flexible learning models during the pandemic would not receive this hold-harmless funding, creating two funding tiers for public school students and setting an unequal funding precedent.

Many of the 200,000+ students who attend nonclassroom-based public charter schools in California are disadvantaged and marginalized students who did not find success being in a classroom five days a week. Instead, they have found success in a personalized learning environment in which they have the option to attend school in person or at home through an education plan that is tailored to their abilities, needs and interests. In fact, many of these students attend school in person four out of five days a week.

California law defines a nonclassroom-based public charter school as a school in which more than 20% of the school’s enrolled students receive more than 20% of total instruction outside a classroom. The term nonclassroom-based was never intended to literally describe a school’s education delivery model, but instead was devised to distinguish between two distinct types of charter school attendance accounting processes (seat time versus time value of pupil work produced). Unfortunately, nonclassroom-based instruction is a confusing and misleading term that has fostered widespread misunderstanding among both decision-makers and the public and has led some to intentionally mischaracterize who these schools are and what they do.

If the state genuinely wants all students to succeed, then the K-12 education budget must provide a fair and equitable funding formula and extend the hold-harmless provision to all public schools. It is disheartening that the state cannot or will not provide answers about why one segment of public school students will receive less funding this school year, especially given the billions of dollars in discretionary funding that could be used to treat all students fairly due to the state’s record budget surplus.

The reason to shortchange personalized-learning students is certainly not about the quality of education. In May, the California Department of Education recognized eight APLUS+ member schools for their outstanding distance learning programs provided during the pandemic.

So, the question is: What is the reason for the unfair treatment of students at personalized learning public charter schools? Is it because the state values the educational success of these students less?

As we learn from the pandemic, our insight can be used to improve public policy. The governor and Legislature have an opportunity to ensure that all children succeed — but to do this they must not pick winners and losers, and they must ensure that all public schools are funded equally.

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Jeff Rice is founder/director of the Association of Personalized Learning Schools and Services (APLUS+), a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the personalized learning model for students.

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