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(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jaden Farr, 16, joins other students at DaVinci Academy, 2033 Grant Ave, in Ogden, as they take online Spanish on Friday, Feb. 21, as part of their "blended" learning program. Blended learning means the student is a traditional student who also takes some classes online, for instance language classes or other subjects that allow them to get caught up or move ahead.
Audit finds poor oversight of Utah schools’ online education

Senator accuses schools of enrolling ‘‘ghost’’ students.

First Published Feb 26 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Mar 07 2014 04:06 pm

Two private companies are being paid millions in Utah tax dollars to recruit online students who boost enrollment for mostly charter schools — on paper.

The schools contract out the students’ online education back to the same companies that recruited them. Some schools then pay little attention to student performance, attendance, or progress toward graduation, leaving it to the private company, a new state audit says.

At a glance

Audit: Flaws found in Utah’s K-12 online, distance education

Among the findings in a 52-page Utah State Office of Education audit of online and distance learning in public schools:

» Some schools contract with private companies to provide online education, then pay little attention to student performance, attendance or progress toward graduation.

» Some schools don’t verify that teachers in the private online programs are licensed in Utah and have passed background checks, or that classes follow Utah’s core curriculum standards.

» At least one school and its contractor are getting state money for teaching home-school courses, which do not qualify for funding.

» Some charters are providing online classes when their charters don’t say they can.

» Some schools did not follow state procurement laws requiring competitive bidding, which the state office has to report to the attorney general’s office for investigation.

Online, distance learning: Who was audited?

The Utah State Office of Education’s new audit on online and distance learning found lax management on the part of many schools.

Fifteen of Utah’s 90 charter schools and 23 of the state’s 41 school districts have online or distance-learning programs.

Among the handful audited:

Districts or schools that manage the programs themselves generally do a better job, the audit found.

The audited schools in that category were Alpine Online (Alpine District), Utah Online (Washington District), and three charters: Utah Virtual, Utah Connections and Mountain Heights.

Schools that contract with two Utah companies generally have been more hands-off, letting the companies manage the students’ education, the audit said.

Those schools included one district school, Provo’s eSchool, as well as charters C.S. Lewis, DaVinci, Rockwell, American Leadership and Gateway Preparatory.

Auditors also gathered basic information from these charters but didn’t audit them: Pioneer High, Mana, Aristotle and Pacific Heritage.

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Many of the charter students take only a few classes online, the Utah State Office of Education audit found, but their school gets paid as if they are full time.

The audit estimates that $10.5 million in state money is flowing through schools this year and into the coffers of Harmony Educational Services, based in Provo, and My Tech High Inc., of Spanish Fork. The companies offer parents cash incentives, such as technology allowances.

Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, calls these kids "ghost students." The schools "don’t manage them. They don’t interact with them," she said.

Instead, "They are students of a private company who used public funds to essentially bribe students and then assigned them to a public school," said Henderson, whose own children attend a charter school. She also serves on the board of Mountain Heights, a virtual charter school.

The audit says the two companies manage the instruction of an estimated 2,550 students, many of them formerly home-schooled children.

Tim Beagley, chairman of the Utah State Charter School Board, said charter schools live and die on enrollment. If they build for 400 and get only 200 students, "they’ve got a pretty desperate situation." He added: "I believe these two companies took advantage of that."

My Tech founder Matthew Bowman and Harmony President John Thorn said critics have it wrong. They said they offer students innovative alternatives and welcome clearer policies.

"Tell us how you want us to do things," Bowman said. "We’re in this for the long haul."

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Rules ignored, or missing » The 52-page audit found lax management throughout online programs at Utah schools, particularly among those that let outside companies manage students’ education.

At least eight charter schools will soon receive warning letters from the state charter school office, said Marlies Burns, who oversees charters. The letters are the first step toward charter revocation if they don’t fix the problems the audit identifies.

One district school that also contracts with My Tech and Harmony, Provo’s eSchool, also has been put on notice to make changes.

Besides the failure to track students, the audit said, schools take the companies’ word for it that teachers are all licensed in Utah and have passed background checks, and that the classes are up to Utah’s core-curriculum standards.

Schools are not following Utah’s truancy and compulsory education laws, though part of the problem is lack of clarity on what the rules mean for students who take classes on home computers, the audit showed.

At least one school and its contractor are getting state money for teaching home-school courses, which do not qualify for funding.

The audit also found schools did not follow state procurement laws requiring competitive bidding, which the state education office has to report to the attorney general’s office for investigation.

Some charters are providing online classes when their charters don’t say they can, which is a finding that disturbs Chris Bleak, president of the Utah Association of Utah Charter Schools. "We advocate and pride ourselves on adhering to our charters."

In instance after instance, the audit notes that schools are either ignoring rules or there are no rules. David Thomas, vice chairman of the Utah State Board of Education, acknowledges the board has a lot of work to do.

"It was a good wake-up call in terms of this brave new world of online programs and distance learning," said Thomas, head of the board’s audit committee.

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