Colorado’s venture into online schooling comes under heavy fire in a new state auditor’s report that finds the schools have received lax oversight from the state and local districts.
The findings issued last week are expected to help spur legislative changes to tighten the reins on online schooling. The state auditor spells out 16 recommendations, including a call for the state to consider a moratorium on the creation of online public schools until key changes are enacted.
“Colorado has very little accountability, very few clear standards for the quality of programs and for student performance,” said Sen. Sue Windels, a Democrat who chairs the education committee in her chamber of the legislature and requested the audit. “I don’t think we can just experiment and try to find the bad apples after the fact.”
But Randy DeHoff, a member of the state board of education, said he’s worried that lawmakers may go too far in regulating online schools.
“My concern is that anything you do to correct or take care of this situation, that you don’t go overboard and stifle future innovation,” he said.
One school—the Hope Online Learning Academy Co-Op, which has seen explosive growth since it opened in 2005—is singled out in the report as especially rife with problems. Hope Academy, chartered by the tiny Vilas school district, which serves about 100 students at its brick-and-mortar school in southeast Colorado, operates 81 online learning centers statewide for about 3,700 students and is now the state’s largest single online school.
The report finds the nonprofit organization to have a lack of licensed and qualified teachers, incomplete background checks on employees, and inadequate student documentation, among other problems. Also, the audit found a “high risk” that public funds were being used to support private, and in some cases religious, schools at several of those learning centers.
“The problems we identified with Hope Academy … illustrate the risks of having insufficient standards for and oversight of online schools,” says the auditor’s report.
The report says that, as of last school year, about 6,200 Colorado students were enrolled in 18 online schools. It finds that, in the aggregate, online students have performed poorly on state tests and had far higher rates of students dropping out or repeating a grade than did other public schools.
The report also says the state education agency has failed to live up to its oversight responsibilities.
“Despite ongoing problems in four of the seven school districts we reviewed,” it says, “the department [of education] did not place these four districts on accreditation probation, as required by state board rules.”
‘Local Control’ State
William J. Moloney, Colorado’s commissioner of education, defended his agency’s actions while saying he sees a need for legislative changes.
“Constrained by the law and available staff, I think we’ve acted reasonably,” he said in an interview. “This is a strong local-control state, which is one of the things that ties our hands.”
“The legislature has to act, and we’ll be working with the legislature,” he added. “The bottom line here is, you’re dealing with a phenomenon that has not been seen before.”
In particular, Mr. Moloney was referring to Hope Academy and its dozens of learning centers, where students have access to computers and instructional support to do their work at the virtual school. The centers are based in a variety of settings, including churches, libraries, strip shopping malls, and private schools.
“We never, ever had a charter school that cloned itself 81 times,” the commissioner said.
At two of seven learning centers auditors visited, most students were spending at least half the day in private-school classes rather than using the online curriculum. Those two schools received a total of $327,000 in public funding during the 2005-06 school year.
For fiscal 2006, the Vilas school district received more than $2 million in state per-pupil funding to provide curriculum, technical support, and special education services for Hope Academy students, the report says.
Joseph D. Shields, the Vilas district superintendent, said his system is taking the audit seriously.
“It points to problems that do exist and need to be cured,” he said.
Stephen Shapiro, a Hope Academy spokesman said the charter is also taking action.
“We knew what the issues were, and have actually addressed a good chunk of them, and those that we have not addressed we’re in the midst of addressing,” he said.
He added, “Hope, being both a charter and an online school, has attracted the attention of those that are most skeptical.”
Sen. Windels said her committee will hold a hearing in February.
Some local education officials appear to echo her concerns.
“Clearly, when you have the public dollar funding choice,... there do need to be some rules and regulations for strict accountability, and more importantly, the students have to be supported,” said Jane Urschel, the associate executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards.
A version of this article appeared in the December 20, 2006 edition of Education Week as Colo. Online Charters Need More Oversight, Auditor Says