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Auditor to consider online schools’ review

State Auditor Dianne Ray Tuesday received approval to plan an audit of Colorado online education programs, a day after Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, requested an “emergency” audit before the start of the 2012 legislative session.

The Legislative Audit Committee voted 5-3 to authorize Ray to use eight hours of staff time to study the feasibility of such an audit, including whether the work can be done in two phases, thereby providing a preliminary report for Shaffer by January.

The development comes just days before Education News Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network plan to publish an in-depth investigation of Colorado online programs. The series launches this coming Sunday.

Ray told the committee that such performance audits normally take nine months to complete. She also said doing such an audit wouldn’t delay current projects being done by her staff.

The auditor will report back to the committee at its Nov. 7-8 meeting so the panel can decide whether to go ahead with an online audit.

Schaffer’s Monday letter, citing various Department of Education reports that he provided to the audit committee, said, “Review of these documents raises serious questions about the efficacy of some online education programs,” including high student failure rates, lack of program plans to retain students after the Oct. 1 enrollment count date and some inefficient program operations.

“Given the short time before consideration of next year’s budget allocations, I request a comprehensive audit of K-12 online school programs be completed prior to the start of the next legislative session.” (See Shaffer statement, text of letters and links to cited documents.)

The Senate president wants the audit to review online program costs, for-profit programs, dropout rates and what happens to funding allocated for students who later drop out, CSAP scores, state oversight, comparison of Colorado’s program with those of other states and whether any current programs are violating CDE standards.

Ray told the committee she had talked to Shaffer, explained the time it takes to do a full performance audit and discussed the idea of breaking the study into two pieces.

Shaffer told Education News Colorado last spring that he’d heard several concerns about the quality of online programs and had some research done on the issue. The president said he considered introducing online legislation during the 2011 session, perhaps as a way to save money and generate additional revenue for other education programs. Shaffer ultimately didn’t introduce any bills on the issue.

A recent report to the State Board of Education found that online students’ academic performance consistently lags behind that of students in other programs, even with adjusted for various at-risk factors (see report).

The 2007 legislature passed a law intended to strengthen oversight of online programs, but there have been growing concerns expressed by some in the last year that online programs still have problems. (Read the 2006 state audit of online programs and review the report of the 2007 report of the Trujillo Commission, which studied the problem further.)

Shaffer’s letter sparked a little bit of partisan sparring during the committee’s Monday meeting, according to a report by The Associated Press.

Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Lakewood, reportedly called the letter “grandstanding” for political purposes.  Shaffer is planning to run for Congress against Rep. Cory Gardner, R-4th District. Kerr also was concerned about putting an unrealistic deadline on auditors.

Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, said Shaffer’s request “doesn’t seem reasonable at all.” Tuesday, Renfroe said Shaffer raised “some valid questions” but that the questions seemed to be answered in the CDE documents the president provided. The two voted against the motion to allow Ray to do audit planning, along with Rep. Cindy Acree, R-Aurora. Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, joined four committee Democrats to pass the motion.