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Online bills move into spotlight

There’s been only low-key discussion of online education during the 2012 legislative session, but that may start changing.

The House Education Committee on Monday afternoon will consider House Bill 12-1306, which would allow compensation for districts that receive students after the annual Oct. 1 enrollment count. Under current law, districts don’t receive per-pupil funding for such students.

There’s been criticism that some online schools let students go too easily after the count, and that those kids end up in traditional schools.

HB 12-1306 would allow a district to apply for additional funding if its spring count of students taking statewide tests is higher than its Oct. 1 count.

The bill is sponsored by Republican Rep. Chris Holbert of Parker and Sen. Keith King of Colorado Springs. King believes the problem of unfunded students is less serious than critics argue, and because of that he hints the measure may be more of a “statement” bill than anything else.

The legislative staff fiscal note analyzing the bill puts the annual cost at $875,818, a small amount in the context of more than $5 billion in annual spending on K-12 schools. The fiscal note says, “The majority of school districts and institute charter schools lose enrollment between the October 1 student count day and the administration of the CSAP tests. Over the past five years, an average of 29 districts increased enrollment annually. The total number of additional students is, on average, 150 students.”

Also on tap this week is House Bill 12-1124, scheduled in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. The measure, by Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, would direct the state Department of Education to hire an outside consultant to conduct a comprehensive study of “digital learning,” with the study hopefully providing a basis for later policy decisions.

Massey has tried to keep his bill clear of controversies around the effectiveness, funding and oversight of full-time online education. He wants the study to cover not only online schools but also blended programs that combine online and in-school work and use of technology in the classroom.

Watching from the wings is Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, who says he’s considering an online bill to improve oversight of such programs. Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, had promised legislation to “rein in” online programs. But Shaffer is running for Congress, making him a partisan target at the Capitol and putting a handicap on any controversial bill that carries his name.Steadman said last week he hasn’t decided what to include in his legislation and he’s watching what happens with other bills, including the two being heard this week.

It’s also possible that amendments affecting online education could be added to House Bill 12-1240, a measure whose broad title could include a wide range of education subjects. That bill gained some unexpected amendments last week in House Education, sparking a partisan spat – see story.

Online amendments also could find a home in the annual school finance bill, expected to be introduced later this month, or in a still-to-be-fleshed-out overhaul of school finance laws that Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, is considering.

Last fall, Shaffer sought an emergency audit of online programs but was rebuffed by the Legislative Audit Committee.

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