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Budget Gaps Found to Undermine Personalized Learning Programs in Charter Schools

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A report on charter schools that implemented tech-based, personalized learning programs this year found that the programs were susceptible to budget gaps because they missed enrollment and donation projections.

Preliminary findings from an on-going two-year study of eight charter schools are outlined in a policy brief by the Center on Reinventing Public Education. The schools opened at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year with grant money from the Next Generation Learning Challenges initiative, which is funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates and the William and Flora Hewlett foundations.

"We wanted to get these interim findings out," CRPE senior research fellow, Larry Miller, told Education Week. "We hadn't planned to publish anything until the end of the two-year study, but we thought that these findings were important, timely and actionable."

The general idea behind the personalized learning programs is to use a combination of technology and teachers to tailor instruction to each student and to provide data on what students know and how they're progressing. The schools in the study planned to spend about 34 percent of their budgets on "human capital" and 27 percent on technology.

"The schools we studied planned to allocate their budgets differently than traditional public schools," said Miller in a statement. "But when budgets got tight and cuts were necessary, these schools cut spending on technology, protected spending on staff, and ended up using their resources like the schools they were trying to differentiate themselves from."

In the end, however, the schools spent nearly 60 percent on human capital and only 10 percent on technology. Five of the eight schools still ended up with unsustainable budgets where their ongoing expenses were more than their regular public revenue.

Miller outlined a few policy suggestions for schools looking to implement similar personalized learning programs:

  • More aggressively market and advertise the programs so that the schools can hit their enrollment targets;
  • Plan for a worst-case-scenario budget before the worst case is realized, and think more strategically to reduce spending if budget gaps are encountered within the first year;
  • Figure out the minimum hardware and software requirements to deliver personalized learning, and which hardware and software apps meet those requirements for the lowest prices; and,
  • Manage product contracts proactively by being explicit about needs, establishing performance requirements, and negotiating trial periods.

CRPE's larger study is looking at a mix of over 20 charter and traditional public schools all of which are Next Generation Learning Challenges grant recipients. The CRPE's study is funded by the Gates' foundation.

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