Accountability

Colo. Online Charters Need More Oversight, Auditor Says

By Erik W. Robelen — December 19, 2006 4 min read

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.

“Online Education Performance Audit, November 2006" is available from Colorado’s Office of the State Auditor.

“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

Events

Jobs The EdWeek Top School Jobs Virtual Career Fair
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Engaging Young Students to Accelerate Math Learning
Join learning scientists and inspiring district leaders, for a timely panel discussion addressing a school district’s approach to doubling and tripling Math gains during Covid. What started as a goal to address learning gaps in
Content provided by Age of Learning & Digital Promise, Harlingen CISD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How to Power Your Curriculum With Digital Books
Register for this can’t miss session looking at best practices for utilizing digital books to support their curriculum.
Content provided by OverDrive

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Accountability Opinion Absenteeism Is the Wrong Student Engagement Metric to Use Right Now
In a post-pandemic era for school accountability, let’s focus on measuring what matters.
Sara Johnson, Annette Anderson & Ruth R. Faden
4 min read
Figure being erased.
Getty
Accountability Biden Education Team Squashes States' Push to Nix All Tests but Approves Other Flexibility
The department has telegraphed its decision to deny states' requests to cancel federally mandated tests for weeks.
3 min read
A first-grader learns keyboarding skills at Bayview Elementary School in San Pablo, Calif on March 12, 2015. Schools around the country are teaching students as young as 6 years old, basic typing and other keyboarding skills. The Common Core education standards adopted by a majority of states call for students to be able to use technology to research, write and give oral presentations, but the imperative for educators arrived with the introduction of standardized tests that are taken on computers instead of with paper and pencils.
The U.S. Department of Education denied some states' requests to cancel standardized tests this year. Others are seeking flexibility from some testing requirements, rather than skipping the assessments altogether.
Eric Risberg/AP
Accountability Explainer Will There Be Standardized Tests This Year? 8 Questions Answered
Educators want to know: Will the exams happen? If so, what will they look like, and how will the results be used?
12 min read
Students testing.
Getty
Accountability Opinion What Should School Accountability Look Like in a Time of COVID-19?
Remote learning is not like in person, and after nine months of it, data are revealing how harmful COVID-19 has been to children's learning.
6 min read
Image shows a speech bubble divided into 4 overlapping, connecting parts.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty and Laura Baker/Education Week