Quick-turnaround online task force makes recommendations

Colorado needs an updated legal definition of online education and should change the way multi-district online schools are overseen, a task force that’s advising four legislators has recommended.

The group made no definitive suggestion on the touchy issue of accountability for online schools, concluding that the issue needs more discussion among educators and interest groups and that new ways to measure the performance of such schools should be tested in a pilot program.

The K-12 Online Education Commission was set up by a bipartisan group of four lawmakers who are considering introduction of online legislation this session. The panel was on a short timeline, having been convened on Jan. 30.

The four lawmakers face equally tight timing. The 2014 session must adjourn no later than May 7, and the next two weeks will be dominated by consideration of the 2014-15 state budget and related bills. Once the budget clears, there will be only a month left in the session, with plenty of other issues still to be resolved, including other education measures.

“We’ve got to move quickly. It’s a little challenging,” said Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley, one of the four. Young and Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood met with the task force Friday. Young said he, Kerr and Republicans Sen. Ellen Roberts of Durango and Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida probably will consult by phone over the weekend.

Here’s a summary of the group’s recommendations:

  • Definition – Current law defines online programs and schools primarily in terms of instruction done “primarily through use of the Internet.” The task force proposes a broader definition that accommodates the variety of online and electronic learning methods that have evolved since the current state law was written.
  • Attendance – Enrollment and attendance of online students basically is calculated the same way as for students in buildings. The task force felt that doesn’t work and that more flexible enrollment counting methods are needed for online students. (This is an idea that may get tangled up in the broader – and unresolved – debate about whether the state should convert to the average daily membership method of counting enrollment.)
  • Records transfer – Current procedures require student records to be transferred to online program within 30 days. The task force is suggesting 14.
  • Authorization – Currently, the Department of Education and the State Board of Education certify online programs that are open to students in multiple districts. (Some of those schools have been criticized for low achievement and high student turnover.) The task force suggests that the state should instead set standards for and certify the authorizers – districts and the state Charter School Institute. The idea is that authorizers would become more responsible for the performance of multidistrict online programs. Although this sounds bureaucratic, this is a significant recommendation.
  • Pilot programs – The task force recommends that the legislature require CDE to work with online interests on development of pilot projects to experiment with course-level and competency based funding, different accountability measures for online programs, improved ways to count enrollment, better methods for helping struggling students and better ways to make students more accountable for their online success.

“The current accountability system is an unrealistic and incomplete indicator of student and school performance,” the task force report says. “The prevalence of difficult issues requiring more time and voices led to the commission’s recommendation of creating pilot programs.”

The task force recommended that the issue of drop-in centers for online students also needs further study and isn’t ready for legislation.

The task force was supported by staff of the Donnell-Kay Foundation, which has done previous work on online education.

Read the full report, including the detailed recommendations, and see list of task force members here.