DENVER –Online school is helping Michelle Nuss catch up. The 17-year-old is only a freshman in high school, falling behind a few years ago when she and her mother were homeless and living in a hotel.
These days, Nuss studies online up to six days a week and hopes she’ll be a junior by the end of the year.
“I love it,” she said of Connections Academy, her publicly funded online-only school. “They should keep it around and make it accessible for everybody.”
But some Colorado lawmakers want to know if Nuss and other online students are really getting the best education. So far, Colorado’s online schools have shown disappointing results.
A 2010 report by the state Department of Education showed below-average test scores, dropout rates near 50 percent in some cases and, at one school, a student-to-teacher ratio of 317-1.
Still, the state’s online school industry is growing by double digits a year. Enrollment grew by more than 12 percent between 2008 and 2009.
Last year, Colorado spent about $85 million teaching about 14,200 students online. Like brick-and-mortar schools, online schools are funded based on the number of students enrolled on a single “count day,” Oct. 1. Some fear the enrollment procedure gives online schools little incentive to keep pupils enrolled.
Lawmakers are talking about several measures to increase oversight for the booming online school industry.
“We’re looking at some increased accountability,” said Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman, who plans to sponsor a bill that would change the role of an office within the Education Department called the “Unit of Online Learning.” Steadman says the office needs “more teeth.”
For example, Colorado’s online learning unit mandates that schools submit reports on “annual budgeting and finance practices” and “staff development plans,” but doesn’t require more detail.
“I’m not convinced that office is accomplishing what the Legislature intended,” Steadman said.
Other lawmakers have proposed a bill requiring the education department to study “the extent to which current school accountability measures are appropriate and sufficient to measure the performance of online students.”
That bill has cleared the House and is pending in the Senate.
Republican Sen. Keith King has suggested a bill to increase the number of “count days” for state funding. The bill would address the problem of paying online schools for pupils who vanish after Oct. 1.
King runs an El Paso County charter school and says not many kids who leave online schools go back to brick-and-mortar schools. He says his bill will reassure lawmakers that online pupils stay in school.
Lawmakers may consider another funding change: Paying online schools only for courses students complete, not for which they’re enrolled.
Expect fireworks when the legislative debate hits on the effectiveness of online schools.
Talking to several hundred online students and their parents recently, Republican Sen. Jean White promised the GOP would look askance at any measure deemed too draconian toward online schools.
“I believe strongly in online education and know it’s a great option for a lot of people,” White said to cheers.
Steadman insisted that online K-12 schools are here to stay. “It’s the 21st century,” he said.
But there’s a decided nervousness among online school parents who fear online schools could see deep funding cuts, too much additional regulation or even elimination.
At last week’s rally, some held “Respect for Cyber Schools” signs. Michelle Nuss and other students set up laptops in the Capitol lobby to show lawmakers they can study from anywhere.
“They need to fund this. No, they need to expand this,” said Michelle’s mom, Tammy Sommerville, who has been loaned a desktop computer from Connections Academy. “In my personal opinion, within 10 years brick-and-mortar schools will be obsolete.”
Another mom with kids in full-time online schools, Tillie Elvrum of Colorado Springs, said she’s getting anxious waiting for lawmakers to debate online schools.
“It’s frustrating. It can be scary for families,” said Elvrum, whose 15-year-old son J.D. has been going to school online since third grade. “I just don’t want to see us singled out in a negative way.”
“We’re still having to prove this works, and this clearly works for thousands of students,” said Lori Cooney, president of the Colorado Coalition of Cyberschool Families and an Aurora mother of two who attend online schools. “It doesn’t work for everybody. But it does work.”