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Moving away from a count date in Colorado

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A news report out of Colorado contained a lot of the same mistakes and mischaracterizations that others have made about online schools.  However, it did one thing well:  highlighted the need for Colorado to reexamine its school funding model to ensure funds follow students to the school of their choice anytime during the school year. 

Currently, the state funds all public schools based on a single calendar year enrollment count date (October 1).  This means that if a student needs to transfer to another school mid-year, after Oct. 1, the new school does not receive any funding to support the student. Also, by making “count day” the most important school day of the year, families are often compelled to jump through ridiculous hoops (see this article in Denver Post).

Asked by Channel 7 about Colorado’s funding model, I responded:

K12 agrees that Colorado should move away from a school funding model based on a single count date to a better model, such as an average daily membership (average number of school days that students are enrolled during the year), which is used in many other states.  We agree that schools and school districts should not be funded for students who are no longer enrolled with them.  Average daily membership funding models are fairer for the state, its schools and students. 

This has long been a policy K12 has endorsed in both principle and practice.  For example, in our partnership with the Colorado Virtual Academy (COVA), a public charter school authorized by Adams 12 Five Star School District, K12 invoices the school for student-related expenses based on the number of students who are enrolled each month, not based on the October 1st enrollment count. 

The Channel 7 report also focused on the past performance of Insight School of Colorado, which at that time was operated by Insight Schools, Inc. (formerly owned by Apollo Group Inc., which runs U. of Phoenix, and then owned for a short time by Kaplan, Inc. a division of( The Washington Post Company).

K12 was not involved in Insight School of Colorado last year and had no window into its past operations or its employees, so there was nothing we could add to the news report.  It wasn’t until three months ago, July 2011, that K12 became involved with the school following an asset acquisition from Kaplan.  As I told Channel 7, since July K12 has worked closely with the program’s sponsor, Julesburg School District, and the Colorado Department of Education on an improvement plan for the school. Virtually everything -- administrators, teachers, curriculum, assessment and instructional programs, etc. -- has changed and substantially improved.  We’re investing a lot of resources to help the school turnaround.

The Julesburg School District Superintendent and new Executive Director of Insight School of Colorado outlined all the changes made to the school in a letter to parents and students.

The report highlighted some of Colorado Virtual Academy’s positive results, but left others on the editing room floor.  Here are a few more results from COVA that I sent to them in an email:

  • COVA high school students demonstrated high achievement and high academic growth in reading based on state test data.
  • The longer students were enrolled in COVA the better they performed on the CSAP tests.
  • COVA exceeded the state average on the Colorado ACT in 2009 and 2010.
  • In 2010, COVA graduated 100% of students on time (in 4 years) who were enrolled in the school since their freshman year.
  • COVA students showed strong academic growth scores based on widely used and nationally-recognized Scantron Performance Series Assessments.  COVA students exceeded the Scantron national norm group in math and reading.
  • 84% of COVA’s parents were satisfied with COVA; 88% of parents were satisfied with their child’s teachers.

These results are encouraging considering the school is serving a growing number of academically at-risk students who chose to enroll because they were struggling or failing in a traditional school.  In recent years COVA has seen a spike in new students who come in below grade level, behind in their credits and not on track to graduate on time.  As the COVA Board wrote in this statement, outlining the problems with how the graduation rate is calculated, the challenge of serving a growing population of academically at-risk transfer students is unique for public schools of choice, especially for those that have the capacity to serve students statewide.  It’s clear the COVA team is committed to helping improve performance for all students.

Children deserve options in public education, especially when they are failing in whatever school they were assigned to attend.  It’s becoming more evident that parents in Colorado and across the U.S. want more options and the freedom to choose.  That is a welcome trend and one that policymakers should embrace.  After all, it is children and their parents who are the customers. 

Colorado would do well to begin looking at ways to update their school funding model and student data systems to reflect the new dynamic of greater student mobility and parent choice.  By shifting away from a count date, and removing any other barriers, students will have more opportunities to attend the school or program they need at anytime during the school year.   While reforming the state’s funding model will not erase the challenge of serving academically at-risk students, it will make it fairer for the schools that accept these students and commit to serve them.