DENVER (AP) – A proposal to review online schools in Colorado failed Tuesday before a divided legislative committee that argued about the politics behind the requested investigation.
The Legislative Audit Committee hit a partisan 4-4 divide on the request from Democratic Senate President Brandon Shaffer to take a new look at Colorado’s booming online school industry, which Shaffer argues has little oversight even though it receives state funds.
About 2 percent of Colorado public school students in kindergarten through 12th grade now attend school online, taking all their courses over the Internet. Some of the schools are for-profit businesses, and Shaffer contends they boost enrollment rates before an Oct. 1 “count date” to increase the state funding they get.
“I am very disappointed Republicans chose to make this into a partisan issue, instead of simply doing the right thing,” Shaffer said in a statement.
He said in his request for an audit in September that some online programs have student failure rates of more than 50 percent and that some students leave programs early. He said some programs get state funding without a plan for student retention or educational success.
However, Republican lawmakers on the audit committee argued that Shaffer requested the audit to malign online coursework favored by homeschooled children and some charter schools. They also accused Shaffer of seeking the request for political reasons; Shaffer is challenging a Republican congressman this fall and has said education will be one of his main platforms.
Republicans said auditors should look at the entire K-12 education system, instead of focusing only on online schools.
“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 Republican Sen. Scott Renfroe.
State auditors said the state budget for online schools last year was $85 million, which Democratic Sen. Lois Tochtrop called a “pretty good-sized chunk of change.”
The budget for K-12 education this year is about $2.8 billion, or nearly 40 percent of the state budget.
Shaffer said he plans to introduce legislation next year to address some of the issues he wanted auditors to investigate.
Some educators have called for more oversight and study of the effectiveness of online schools. A report last month by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado called for more audits of online school providers.
“The rapid growth of virtual schooling raises several immediate, critical questions for legislators regarding matters such as cost, funding and quality,” the authors wrote.
Randy DeHoff, a former Colorado school board member who now works for a nonprofit online school based in Westminter, said online schools in Colorado were already audited in 2007.
“Online schools all agree we need to be doing a better job of capturing what we’re doing well and identifying what we’re not doing well,” said DeHoff, director of strategic growth for the GOAL Academy, an online high school with 2,200 students.
DeHoff agreed that counting school enrollment on a single day to determine funding is inexact, but he argued the problem isn’t limited to online schools.
“Traditional schools lose kids after Oct. 1 too, and they keep the money,” DeHoff said. “The problem is the way we fund all schools based on a single day.”
– By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer
– Associated Press writer Kristen Wyatt contributed to this report
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