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Online schools to get more state oversight


The state Board of Education is tightening the screws on cyber-schools that critics say have been fleecing the state by collecting money but delivering sub-par education to an ever-increasing base of students who get their instructions online rather than in a classroom.

According to an AP article in December, more than 14,000 Colorado K-12 students are expected to be taught online this year. Private companies that run these cyber-schools—some of which are for-profit—recruit students as young as kindergarten age and they receive the same per-pupil rate from the state as traditional schools that teach kids face-to-face; Colorado is expected to spend about $85 million this year teaching kids online.

But a 2010 Board of Education report shows much of this money is spent with little oversight or accountability, making state officials wonder if taxpayers are getting what they’re paying for. According to the AP, the Board of Education found that test scores for online students are below average, dropout rates can be as high as 50 percent and—in one instance—the student-to-teacher ratio was as high as 317 to 1. Online schools are paid by the state for the entire school year, even if a student drops out after registration enrollment is tallied on Oct. 1.

The problems are not new; the state auditor has found that online schools have fallen short of expectations for regular schools since at least the 2005-2006 school year. One online school evaluated at the time only had four licensed teachers to instruct some 1,500 students in all grade levels and in all subjects. The audit also found that, contrary to what some advocates of virtual schools say, the state spent more teaching kids online than if they’d gone to a regular school.

For Fiscal Year 2006,” the audit reads, “the Department estimated that the State would have saved at least $6.7 million if all online students had enrolled in schools in their district of residence instead of in the online schools they actually attended.”

Since that report, online enrollment has only increased to the point where an estimated 2 percent of all students in the state are now getting their instruction online. Despite a bill signed by Gov. Ritter in 2007 setting standards for online courses, critics say governmental oversight has not kept pace with enrollment.

“I know there are millions of dollars being bled from the system that have no accountability tied to them,” Democratic Senate President Brandon Shaffer is quoted as saying by AP.

On Wednesday, the state Board of Education unanimously approved changes to rules that will heighten quality control over online schools, increase scrutiny of new online school applications and hold them as accountable as brick-and-mortar schools when they fall short.

Some lawmakers don’t feel the changes go far enough. According to the Denver Post, at least one lawmaker is considering a bill that would change the funding structure for online schools.