Carrie Branstetter is a believer in online education.
She has two children who do their schooling at home, with a third set to begin kindergarten in the fall. She’s also a teacher with Nelson’s CHEK ABC, which offers Christian-based online education for kindergarten to Grade 12 students.
The opportunity to teach her children and have them learn at their own pace with flexible schedules, Branstetter says, has brought her family closer together.
“That allows my husband and I to work and teach our kids at the same time,” said Branstetter from her home in Creston.
“It gives us the freedom to visit family when we want to. We school all year round so that we can take those breaks whenever we need them. And it’s been really good for family relationships.”
Branstetter’s children are among the 9,375 students enrolled in independent distributed learning (IDL), or online only schools, according to the Ministry of Education.
But beginning July 1, 16 IDL schools including CHEK ABC will have their funding slashed following an announcement on May 4 that took educators and parents by surprise. Previously, schools were funded $3,843 per full-time equivalent student. That will change to $3,050 per student for the fall semester, or half the funding per student at a public distributed learning school.
A spokesperson for the ministry told the Star the funding change was made to bring independent online schools in line with what their public counterparts receive relative to funding for brick and mortar schools.
Public online schools, they said, receive $1,460 per full-time equivalent student less than students at physical schools, while IDL students were previously receiving just $500 less than those attending B.C.’s 351 independent physical schools.
“This funding approach isn’t equitable and this rate change addresses that issue,” said the spokesperson.
Out of the 545,805 students in public schools, 14,000 students are enrolled in distributed learning programs, according to the education ministry.
The number of students turning to online education, Branstetter says, is partly what makes the cuts to independent options frustrating.
“IDL schools are really resourceful, and creative and resilient and we work with what’s given to us,” she said, “and I think that we do a good job. However, I think we would be the most effective if we were funded at the same rate as the public distributed learning schools.”
The cuts also represent a backtracking on a pre-election promise by Premier John Horgan not to cut independent education funding. In a March 2017 letter to the Federation of Independent School Associations of B.C. (FISA), Horgan said the NDP had no plans to change funding.
“Our aim if we form government,” Horgan wrote, “will be to strengthen and improve our public education system, which has been eroded due to a lack of funding.”
Independent distributed learning schools are required to have B.C. certified teachers who create learning plans for students based on the provincial curriculum. They also meet with families and prepare report cards.
FISA represents over 300 independent schools in B.C. The organization’s executive director Shawn Chisholm said he was stunned by the funding announcement.
“We were totally caught off guard. Not only with kind of the timing, but I would say the Ministry of Education has been very engaging with us and consulting with us,” said Chisholm.
“So normally when there are policy decisions happening, we talk and are never blindsided, but this certainly did. This was not anticipated at all.”
Chisholm added FISA has since been in contact with the ministry, but he couldn’t provide further specifics except to say the government has been engaged in the talks.
Gabe Linder is principal of Surrey-based Traditional Learning Academy Online, which has operated since 2002 and currently has approximately 1,200 students enrolled.
He said part of the surprise was the timing of the announcement. Linder said many school budgets, including his own, were already completed. Now he needs to account for what he says will be a roughly $800,000 loss in funding.
“It forced all of us schools into a terrible position of having to readjust all of our business, financial, budget plans for the coming year,” he said. “We’ve been having to cut in all kinds of places from staff salaries to how it impacts families.”
One of the reasons for the funding cut, according to the ministry, is that provincial funding isn’t meant to cover operating costs for IDL schools. The majority of schools, the spokesperson said, are not charging tuition.
That was true for Linder’s school prior to the announcement. He said next year will be the first Traditional Learning Academy Online charges tuition of up to $200 depending on a student’s grade level or individual courses taken.
Although it may not sound like a lot, Linder says his school’s families are often relying on a single income so one parent can remain home with their children.
Those students, he said, may also have learning challenges requiring additional support from the school. The ministry has said children with special needs are not affected by the funding cuts, but Linder argues there are plenty of students not considered part of special education that still need extra resources.
“That’s been one of our big worries right now. Just making sure we can still help those kids who need the most help. They generally come to us already from a public school as a last resort.”
A misconception about IDL schools according to Branstetter is they are primarily attended by children from wealthy families. CHEK ABC, she said, has many students living below the poverty line.
“These families aren’t educating at home because they get money or some other thing,” she said. “They’re doing it because they have no other choice in the case of their family due to mental health or bullying or whatever. It’s the best option for their kids.”
Branstetter said families can voice their concerns by signing an online petition asking the government to either reverse its decision or increase funding. That petition had nearly 14,000 signatures as of Monday.
Branstetter hopes the government at least agrees to delay the cuts by a year, which would give schools more time to prepare. Two months notice, she said, was not sufficient.
“That’s why I’m doing this fight,” said Branstetter. “I’m not sure that will have any effect but I am going down with the fight because my families deserve it.”
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