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An in-depth look by I-News - a Colorado-based nonprofit investigative news collaborative, Education News Colorado, and KUNC at the state’s online K-12 schools. Topics include: online K-12 school performance, state- and district-level oversight, and for-profit Education Management Organizations, such as K12 Inc.

Online K-12 Legislation: What Got Done, What Didn’t

Jim Hill

One issue that saw little traction this past session was oversight legislation for Colorado’s full-time online K-12 schools. 

Last fall a report from KUNC radio and an investigation by I-News and Education News Colorado highlighted problems with poor student performance, student turnover and program funding. At the state’s largest online K-12 school, Colorado Virtual Academy,77 cents out of every taxpayer dollar was going to the school’s for-profit management company, K12 Inc.

Democratic State Senator Brandon Shaffer called for a full audit of the programs last fall, which wasn’t approved. After vowing to spearhead oversight legislation, he says there wasn’t much appetite among legislators for an oversight bill.

Democratic State Senator Pat Steadman considered floating legislation on the topic, and even drafted a bill, but it was never introduced.

The bottom line, according to Shaffer, was that without an audit, schools and legislators couldn’t agree on where to start the discussion.

“There is little agreement about what the baseline facts are,” he says. “That’s why I come back to the audit request. That’s a good way to establish what that baseline is and go from there.”

Republican State Senator Keith King introduced HB 1306, which would have allowed school districts to apply for additional funding if student counts were lower at the end of the year. That’s in response to a report that some online schools were holding on to per pupil funding, and yet overall those schools lost half of students to brick and mortar schools within one year. King says research by the Colorado Legislative Council on changes in student count wasn’t as much of an issue as originally thought.

“There is no significant evidence that says online schools are negatively impacting other schools in the state of Colorado,” he says.

Analysis by the Council found just under a 23 percent–or about 2300 students—left the state’s online K-12 schools last year. Different time frames and grade levels studied could explain the varying results. Ultimately King’s bill died in the Senate Education Committee last week.

One bill that was successful, HB 1124, was a bi-partisan effort that seeks to study digital learning in classrooms. It directs the Colorado Department of Education to seek funding for and commission a study looking at 13 areas including the quality of current online learning programs.

While the state won’t see the results of the Digital Learning Survey this year, Colorado Department of Education’s Amy Anderson says two other studies looking at online K-12 schools will be available this fall.

The University of Colorado at Denver is surveying the experience of teachers, students and parents at the schools.

“The point of that study is to find out from those who are closest to the schools why did they choose an online school and what is their experience in the online school?” says Anderson.

The other in-depth analysis may settle the debate about student turnover in the programs. Anderson says CDE will look at cohorts of students over the course of several years who either join or leave full-time online schools. She also says she wants to look at risk factors of online K-12 students, which some schools say hamper their ability to make academic benchmarks.

“Really doing some comparison of similar students in terms of at-risk factors and demographics who have been in brick and mortar schools and comparing what that experience has looked like compared to that of the online student,” she says. “We’re going to have a ton of really good data.”

Meantime, Anderson says CDE will continue to monitor the academic performance of online K-12 schools.

“We have a strong group of people that are integrated in areas across the department working together to improve outcomes in online schools,” she says. “We have strong relationships with districts, with the field and online schools. We’re honest and open about the challenges and the supports.”

Perhaps the biggest education issue that impacts both online and brick and mortar schools is changing the state’s single count date, which determines funding. This could translate into multiple census dates. Or it could look dramatically different.

One idea from online K-12 school leaders who met this January is so-called “backpack funding.”  This is where per-pupil revenues directly follow a student to the school and courses of his or her choice.

“Dollars following students rather than going to districts may be the direction that will allow greater freedom for students to choose the courses that will best meet their needs, whether it’s an online delivery method or a traditional setting,” says Judith Stokes, assistant superintendent Branson School Onlineand president of the Colorado Association of Cyberschools.

This is the third stage of a three-part policy roadmap outlined at the meeting.

For many legislators, multiple count dates may be an easier pill to swallow. And looming over the conversation is the Lobato Case, which is challenging how the state funds K-12 schools.

With funding becoming scarce, and questions about profits by some online K-12 management companies, State Senator Brandon Shaffer says he’d still like to see an audit of what it actually costs to run such a school.

“That’s got to be less than a brick and mortar school where you have a complete staff, bussing and all the needs of keeping the lights on in the school,” he says. “So what is that cost?”

That’s a question that the Colorado Department of Education is starting to unravel with financial reporting requirements for online K-12 schools. Meantime, legislators will tackle some of these questions--and others--next session.

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