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A report by the Minnesota Legislative Auditor that points to flaws in the state’s K-12 online education program is likely to land on the 2012 legislative agenda.

Learning report stirs hard feelings between Cassellius, legislators

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius raised strong objections to a report about online schools from the Minnesota Legislative Auditor. “The report’s suggested changes … could compromise the quality of education for students,” Cassellius wrote. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Department of Ed. commissioner’s arch reaction termed ‘astounding’

A report by the Minnesota Legislative Auditor that points to flaws in the state’s K-12 online education program is likely to land on the 2012 legislative agenda.

But it wasn’t online education interests that came out of the gate protesting audit director Jim Nobles’ findings. Instead the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) surprised state legislators on both sides of the aisle, including Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, by repudiating the auditor’s recommendations.

“I thought the Department of Education’s response was astounding, quite frankly,” Rest said in an interview. “I thought it was disappointing and extremely defensive.”

Nobles released the report on Monday at a Legislative Audit Commission meeting. The report unearthed troubling statistics about student performance in online schools. It also found that MDE isn’t handling applications for online institutions in a timely manner and presented recommendations for the Legislature to consider.

Accompanying the report was a Sept. 12 letter from MDE Commissioner Brenda Cassellius that raised strong objections.

“The report’s suggested changes … could compromise the quality of education for students and place us at risk of defaulting on both our obligation to oversee the delivery of instruction that meets state standards and our constitutional mandate to provide a ‘uniform system of public schools,’” Cassellius wrote.

Over the years, Nobles’ staff auditors have frequently written reports deeply critical of state agency programs. The pro forma response for agency commissioners has usually been to thank the auditor’s staff for its thorough analysis, cheerfully accede to points of common ground and diplomatically hint at points of dissent.

Cassellius’ letter, however, begins by complaining that Nobles’ staff didn’t include MDE’s suggested edits of the report and goes on to roundly reject its ultimate recommendations.
Rest said the quibble about edits indicated that MDE doesn’t understand the role of the auditor as a servant of the Legislature and not the executive branch.

“I find their response, quite frankly, amateurish and very disappointing,” Rest said.
Unlike previous auditor reports on subjects such as JOBZ and state-owned lands, the online learning report doesn’t call into doubt the future of the program; it notes that online course offerings have grown rapidly since the middle of the last decade. But Nobles questions MDE’s role in overseeing providers.

“In a nutshell, we think the department needs to be more timely and strategic,” Nobles said at the commission meeting. “We also think the state’s approach to overseeing K-12 online learning should not be left to the Minnesota Department of Education alone. Based on what we found in this evaluation, we think the department needs more oversight and direction from the Legislature.”

The report turned up troubling data about student performance in online courses. In particular, the rate of course completion appears to be declining. In the 2009-10 school year, 63 percent of students finished their online courses. That’s down from 84 percent in the 2006-07 academic year. The report also noted that the dropout rate among high school seniors is higher for online learners than the statewide average. Among seniors, 25 percent of full-time online learners in the ’09-’10 year dropped out, compared with 3 percent for students statewide.

These numbers come as education researchers are trying to understand the online learning scene. Due to the recent growth in online learning, the sort of data required to paint a clear picture of its effectiveness is incomplete. The auditors surveyed school district superintendents and charter school directors and used MDE data to answer questions about student performance. But there are still unknowns, such as how much remedial instruction online students need when they enter college. There’s also ambiguity as to whether the poor overall performance numbers are caused by the online format or by the format’s tendency to attract students who are already more prone to have difficulties with school.

Three MDE officials, not including Cassellius, testified before the Audit Commission. They did not respond to Rest’s criticism about the edit requests, and they struck a more measured tone than the written response. Deputy Commissioner Jessie Montano told the commission, which consists of House and Senate members, that she was “very grateful” for the information provided in the report and dispassionately articulated MDE’s positions.

One of the report’s central criticisms of MDE revolves around the length of time it has taken the department to approve applications for online schools. MDE guidelines say applications are to be reviewed within 60 days, but of the eight applications received between Jan. 1, 2010, and June 30, 2011, MDE had reviewed only three by the time the report was concluded.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, told Capitol Report that the department has taken too long.

“To go for 18 months having not looked at an application seems out of line,” Olson said.
The auditor recommends that the Legislature pass specific time frames for processing applications, which MDE opposes. The time strictures are a bad idea given the wide variations between schools, according to Cassellius’ letter.

“The department’s online provider approval process is designed to certify high quality online providers who will deliver high quality standards-based instruction and ensure our constitutional mandate of a uniform system of public schools. This process is quite complex and often defies timelines,” Cassellius wrote.

MDE rejected a recommendation that school districts assemble consortiums for online learning programs because it would increase the department’s regulatory burden.

Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, said she wants the department to address the consortiums idea on policy terms rather than condemning it because it would strain the department’s resources.

“These responses that you have in the report are concerning to me from a policy perspective,” Torres Ray said.

House Education Reform Committee Chairwoman Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, said she plans to bring up the online education issue in her committee when the 2012 legislative session begins in late January. She said it may be necessary to create a board or “virtual school” outside of MDE that reviews online education issues and hears from online educators.

“Based on the report, it didn’t seem that they [MDE] were that interested,” Erickson said. “And this isn’t just this administration. It seems to have started in the last administration. And I think it’s because they don’t realize that online education is really taking on a role of its own in [school] choice.”

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