Critics say alternative learning program raises red flags

Jan 22, 2013

Not every student thrives in a traditional classroom, but changing technology and new research on learning mean Washington kids have more alternatives than ever. They can homeschool part-time or go to class online, even if it means enrolling in a district clear across the state. But that’s allowed a whole raft of questionable practices, and set up a dilemma for policymakers.

Washington’s Alternative Learning Experience program is designed to give parents and teachers flexibility to educate kids who learn differently. About 35,000 students take part across the state, a diverse group with many different reasons for wanting an alternative to a normal school. Some are gifted, some troubled, some have allergies or phobias that keep them home. They’re enrolled in regular school districts, which are given freedom to offer them a non-traditional education.

But that freedom, say lawmakers, officials and auditors, has allowed some of those districts to go astray. Dozens are under scrutiny for gaming the system and taking advantage of taxpayers.

Mixed motives

State Rep. Ross Hunter said the way state payouts work is at the heart of the problem.

“The money from the state comes in a chunk. You either get it or you don’t. If the educational program that you’re providing to that kid is a $200 program, and you’re bringing in $5,000 or whatever it is from the state, you have a really big incentive to bring in a lot of kids,” Rep. Hunter said.

Now throw in another factor: Districts that run ALE programs can enroll kids from anywhere in the state, so they wind up competing for students and the state dollars that follow them. State superintendent Randy Dorn said some have tried to lure students with lavish perks.

“There were concerns that some of these were paying for private horseback riding lessons, private music lessons. If you signed up for a certain program, that you got a stipend for $1,200. Do those feel right? So we’re trying to correct those in our new bill going forward,” Dorn said.

Big questions at a little district

Actually, the legislature already cracked down on some of those practices, including the stipends. That had a big impact on districts like the tiny Valley School District north of Spokane, which operates one of the state’s largest online schools. Valley would reimburse their far-flung students for private instruction in their own communities – ballet in Yakima or kayaking in Gig Harbor.

[According to this document, obtained through a records request by KPLU, districts racked up about 4,533 of these types of charges. Many are for legitimate services, such as tutoring. Private music lessons, martial arts and dance classes account for a large portion of them as well.]

That practice ended at Valley after the legislature ruled districts can only offer ALE kids services “substantially similar to” what’s offered to the general education population. But Superintendent Mark Selle said that just demonstrates the bind he’s in: how else do you offer gym class or drama over the computer?

“Educationally, I think it was the wrong thing to do to sacrifice fine arts and physical education altogether because of isolated abuses,” Selle said.

Officials say the crackdown still hasn’t stamped out some of the extravagances, and Dorn and others plan to tighten up the rules even further.

A field day for auditors

Those reform efforts come even as the State Auditor’s Office is putting the screws to districts with ALE programs. Last year they found 53 school districts had significant problems with their records – to the point where the auditors said many couldn’t justify the headcount they were charging the state for. That meant districts had overcharged the state by almost $27 million.

The tiny Valley School District was dinged for almost $4 million dollars over two years – in 2010, auditors found the district made significant errors in nearly half its ALE students’ files. Superintendent Selle concedes some problems with the records, but says the state is being heavy-handed.

“I do believe that the auditor was overzealous. And I believe that the findings are attributable to the fact that there’s a problem with the system,” he said, referring to the widespread errors by districts all over Washington.

Valley serves just about 250 students in regular classrooms, compared with nearly 800 in its virtual academy. The online school brings in more than three times as much state money. .

Flexibility vs. accountability

Rep. Ross Hunter says paying school districts a flat fee and letting them compete for what amounts to customers just sets up incentives to cut corners.

“We’re going to have to do a thoughtful discussion on how the system works this year. We want a system that deals with online and blended education, which is a very, very compelling set of technology, but done in a way that doesn’t create distortions in the funding model that cause people to have bad behavior,” Hunter said.

With the research and technology still evolving, policymakers have to make room for new non-traditional models of learning. But they also have to balance accountability to the taxpayers footing the bill.