Virtual Reality Check

Problems at online charter schools aren't new.

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After Colorado officials decided to check up on the state’s 18 online schools last year, auditors delivered a scalding report. Among the problems: low test scores, high dropout rates, lax oversight, inadequate teacher credentials, and questionable funding.

The investigation followed complaints from teachers and administrators of bricks-and-mortar schools that were losing students—and funds—to online competitors. Colorado’s virtual schools have grown quickly: In fiscal 2006, they enrolled 6,200 students and received $32.8 million from state and local governments.

At the same time, just 29 percent of online students scored at or above grade level in math on the state assessment, while 53 percent of students statewide met that mark. Among 10th graders, only 7 percent of online students passed the math exam. The gap was narrower in reading, but still significant: 55 percent of online students were at grade level, compared with 68 percent statewide.

Perhaps even more troubling, the report uncovered a lack of documentation proving that students enrolled in online schools were eligible for public funds. It found, for example, that money was funneled through Hope Co-Op Online Learning Academy, one of the largest programs, to private religious schools where students were taught in traditional classrooms.

“That’s a major concern,” says David Sanger, president of the American Federation of Teachers in Colorado. “Districts are losing those students. Since the money follows the student, in some districts … they are beginning to see program cuts.” He adds that teaching positions were lost to unlicensed educators working for online schools.

The audit prompted immediate reactions from Colorado legislators, who promised reform. But the lawmakers shouldn’t have been caught off-guard: Both Ohio and Pennsylvania issued similar reports more than five years ago.

“In terms of some egregious efforts on the part of some of these programs, [the problems in Colorado are] not new,” says Gene Maeroff, author of A Classroom of One: How Online Learning is Changing Our Schools and Colleges. “The extent to which the money follows the students, this has never been successfully resolved.”

In 2001, Pennsylvania state auditor Bob Casey—now a newly elected United States senator—released a report in which he cited “concerns about the ability of Internet-based schools to accurately document student membership.”

Casey, a Democrat, even made it a campaign issue. His deposed opponent, Republican Rick Santorum, enrolled his five children in an online school chartered in a Pennsylvania district. Casey said Santorum lived mostly in a Washington, D.C., suburb, and demanded he refund thousands of dollars.

In Colorado, both the State Board of Education and the private Donnell-Kay Foundation have convened task forces to respond to the audit. Some observers hope they’ll follow the examples of Ohio and Pennsylvania by instituting stricter state oversight of virtual schools.

But Susan Patrick, president of the nonprofit North American Council for Online Learning, warns against holding online programs to different standards than traditional schools. She notes that Colorado’s report focused largely on Hope Academy. Broad policy changes based on the misdeeds of one school could be misdirected, she argues.

Colorado wasn’t the first state to grapple with this new wave of education, and it won’t be the last. Up next is a Kansas audit due in April.

Vol. 18, Issue 05, Page 9

Published in Print: March 1, 2007, as Virtual Reality Check
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