Tiny school district signing up thousands for online courses

District says it's meeting needs of kids who would otherwise drop out, but legislators, other districts question payments, academic value.

A tiny rural district in Colorado has seen a huge jump in enrollments in their online courses, from 3483 to 5730, and state aid has risen accordingly from $19.6 million to $32.6 million. The skyrocketing payments have brought the ire of state legislators down on little Vilas School District in southeastern Colorado, the Rocky Mountain News reports.

"What really shocked me was that online students could drive costs" instead of saving money, said Rep. Tom Plant, D-Nederland, chairman of the Joint Budget Committee. ,,, Sen. Sue Windels, D-Arvada, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, has called for a state audit of online programs. It is scheduled for completion this summer. Windels and lawmakers in the House say the results of the audit will determine whether additional legislation will be introduced to regulate online courses.

But Vilas school officials say the online programs meet the needs of struggling students who might have otherwise dropped out. And defenders of the program say the payments just cover the costs of serving 2,000 students around the state, and that opposition is really a reaction to the online

"This is not a political issue as much as it is philosophical: What we're going to do to serve kids in Colorado," said Terri Rayburn-Davis, a former Jefferson County school board member who directs the Fund for Colorado's Future, a group set up by Gov. Bill Owens that explores educational issues.

Critics of Vilas "don't want the money to go to online programs," Rayburn-Davis said. "They want it to be in brick-and-mortar schools." But those schools weren't helping some students, she said.

"They don't like free enterprise. They don't like competition," Sen. John Evans, R-Parker, a member of the education committee, said of those critical of online programs. "It's the same thing we used to see in the 1970s and '80s - the only one who can do education is the school district," Evans said. "History has proved that wrong."

On the other side, school officials say they're concerned with academic rigor.

"Without (legislative) action, one school district is setting up an unprecedented education policy for this state," said Jane Urschel, associate director of the Colorado Association of School Boards. "What do we know about the Hope Co-op?" Urschel asked. "The state needs to put some reasonable safeguards in place as this new educational delivery system develops."

Phil Fox, deputy director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, said online schools "are so new and untested and appear to be siphoning off quite a bit of money. We're uncertain about what it all means," he said. "It sort of gives us a case of indigestion."

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