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Shaffer plans online ed bills in 2012

Colorado’s top senator says he’ll introduce legislation to “rein in” online schools after his request for an online education audit was rejected Tuesday on a party-line vote by the Legislative Audit Committee.

“I am very disappointed Republicans chose to make this into a partisan issue, instead of simply doing the right thing,” said Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont.

“Despite overwhelming evidence of widespread fraud and abuse by online schools, they blocked an audit that would have saved Colorado taxpayers millions of dollars,” Shaffer said after the vote. “I will bring forward legislation during the 2012 session to reign in these abuses and restore accountability to the system.”

But Republican lawmakers said Shaffer’s request was political and they proposed an alternative – an audit focused on all K-12 schools, rather than narrowly tailored to online programs. That idea was rejected by Democrats.

“Let’s look at the big picture of this and truly audit something that will be useful instead of something that will be only used as a political wedge on one form of education,” said Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley.

“An attack on parental choice is what we’re really looking at here,” Renfroe said, “as opposed to trying to solve the problem of our failure of our education system at some levels.”

Auditor proposes report by summer answering four key questions

Shaffer requested an emergency audit of full-time K-12 online schools on Sept. 26, citing concerns about poor performance, high dropout rates and lack of oversight.

Members of the Legislative Audit Committee agreed on a 5-3 vote – with Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, joining four Democrats – to authorize State Auditor Dianne Ray to study the feasibility of an audit and report back Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Shaffer renewed his appeal for an audit on Oct. 18, citing an array of media reports highlighting concerns about online programs, including a three-part series by Education News Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network.

At Tuesday’s audit committee meeting, deputy state auditor Monica Bowers presented a three-page response that proposed an audit addressing four questions:

  • How has the Colorado Department of Education utilized student performance data, school performance measures and the online school certification process to hold online schools accountable for meeting state student performance standards?
  • What happens to students who drop out of online and brick-and-mortar schools and to state funding associated with these students?
  • What role for “for profit” companies play in the online program and how do CSAP scores and graduation rates for students attending online schools run by “for profit” companies compare with students attending other online schools?
  • Does the CDE’s pupil count and per-pupil revenue funding structure effectively support the cost of educating students online?

Bowers said the audit could be released next summer, though Shaffer had asked for its completion in time to assist state lawmakers during the 2012 General Assembly.

Rep. Cindy Acree, R-Aurora, immediately questioned the scope of the audit, asking why all K-12 schools weren’t included.

“I can tell you I think there is tremendous problems right now in all of our public schools, regardless of whether they’re online or not,” she said. “So I’m concerned at why we need to do this audit.”

Republicans argue to expand audit to include all K-12 schools

Ray estimated a broader audit would take significantly longer.

“We wouldn’t be looking at having this ready in the summer if we’re taking on all K-12,” she said. “I’m thinking a couple of years.”

“We wouldn’t be looking at having this ready in the summer if we’re taking on all K-12. I’m thinking a couple of years.”
— State Auditor Dianne RayRep. Deb Gardner, D-Boulder, said she had heard concerns from school district officials in her area about online students transferring back to brick-and-mortar schools after the Oct. 1 pupil count date, meaning their state funding did not follow them.

But it was mostly anecdotes, she said, and she wanted hard data.

“That would be one of the hopes I would see, that we would turn anecdotal information into real information,” Gardner said.

Bowers said auditors hoped to track students going both ways – from online to brick-and-mortar and from brick-and-mortar to online.

Ultimately, though, the four committee Republicans were unable to convince the four committee Democrats to expand the audit. And Democrats were not able to persuade Republicans to look at online schools only.

Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, repeatedly suggested that Republicans submit requests for the larger audit and asked them to focus on the narrower request in front of them.

“Let’s look at the whole thing now,” Renfroe said. “Why spend the money on two separate audits?”

Shaffer promises to pursue issue via legislation in 2012

Acree proposed amending the audit request to include all K-12 schools, which died on a 4-4 party-line vote. The original motion to conduct the online audit then died along similar partisan lines.

“Whenever an audit like this one dies, it’s important that we ask the question why,” said Rep. Joe Miklosi, D-Denver. “And to me, this is not a political agenda, it’s an effort to make sure that taxpayer dollars are being spent prudently to ensure higher graduation rates.”

Miklosi blamed the partisan split on the belief by some members that Shaffer, who is seeking to oust U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, was “using it as a political tool. I don’t believe that.”

King, who originally voted to look at the feasibility of an online audit, said he did so partly out of respect for Shaffer’s leadership role and partly because it was presented as an “emergency” request and he wanted time to gather information.

So he visited an online school in his area and talked to students.

“They were at-risk students, they were students that were going to fail if they didn’t have another option and the online option was working for them,” King said. “I think we need to give all of our students options for success. That includes online, that includes home-schooling, that includes brick-and-mortar.”

He also said he believed there was more chance for taxpayer dollars being wasted in all of K-12 rather than online programs serving a tiny portion of students.

“I would venture to say there is some areas that we need to reform in online education,” King said. “But there is a heck of a lot of areas that we need to reform in brick-and-mortar schools.”

Shortly after the vote, Shaffer issued a news release saying he’ll pursue the issue via legislation.

“While today’s vote is disappointing, it’s not entirely unexpected,” he said. “Lobbyists representing online schools are extremely powerful in the legislature, and that’s why these schools have a sweetheart deal with no accountability or oversight.”

Vote by Legislative Audit Committee on online schools audit

  • Voting for online schools audit – Rep. Deb Gardner, D-Boulder; Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver; Rep. Joe Miklosi, D-Denver; Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton
  • Voting against online schools audit – Rep. Cindy Acree, R-Aurora; Rep. Brian DelGrosso, R-Larimer County (filling in for Rep. James Kerr, R-Lakewood); Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction; Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley

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