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Audit finds poor oversight of Utah schools’ online education

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

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Schools, too, need to manage all students’ education — not just those physically in front of them.

"You can’t just outsource it to an online program," Thomas said. "You have to have supervision."

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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Smell test » The audit does not use Henderson’s word — bribe — but it does explain how Harmony and My Tech give families some of the taxpayer dollars the companies receive from public schools.

According to the audit, Harmony offers parents $300 per student when they enroll. Parents also can get up to $500 more in reimbursements for curriculum they purchase and up to $35 a month for music lessons, the audit says.

Families who go through My Tech get a $300 technology allowance ($400 the second year) for buying laptop computers, digital cameras or other gear. They also can be reimbursed up to $300 per student for buying courses from other providers and $150 for custom-building courses for their children.

Burns said other charter schools have been allowed to hand out gadgets, but on the condition that they remain the property of the school.

Beagley, the charter board chairman, said that even if there is no explicit rule yet forbidding such incentives, "that (practice) doesn’t pass anybody’s smell test."

But Bowman, My Tech’s founder, said the money "is helping the students get the curriculum and technology they need."

He also likened it to a brick-and-mortar school building nice facilities to attract students. "If a school builds a (fancy) football stadium, is that ‘smell-test’ bad?"

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My Tech helps "parents personalize their education for each child and give them access to technology and entrepreneur education, and we map to the Utah core standards," Bowman said.

Thorn, Harmony’s president, said in an email that his company has brought together two groups with needs: schools that want to pioneer innovative approaches to delivering education and "students (who) have yearned for a more individualized and flexible education through the public school system."

Harmony was founded by Robert Muhlestein, a former state senator.

The audit, Thorn wrote, "pointed out some areas that the state boards of education and the Legislature have needed to address for some time in regard to how public schools should and can deliver online, blended, and competency-based education."

Changes underway » Provo District’s 4-year-old eSchool gives students around the state several options. If they come to the school, they’re given the choice of K12, a major national provider of online curriculum, or BYU Independent Study.

But enrollment really took off when the school contracted with My Tech last year, and Harmony this year. The two companies bring in 700 of eSchool’s 1,200 students, said Megan Dunnigan, school coordinator.

Some parents and students are reluctant to deal directly with a public school, she said.

"They know they’re in a public school. They test just like in a public school," she said. "But for whatever reason, they feel more comfortable having this advocate, this go-between."

Dunnigan said the majority of students used to be home-schooled. Bowman said those using My Tech also come from other charter and traditional schools.

At eSchool, it’s already making changes called for in the audit, Dunnigan said. It has done the research to confirm that Harmony and My Tech teachers have Utah licenses and have passed background checks.

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