A new state audit on Michigan’s cyber charter schools raises questions about whether students are participating in the classes in which they’re enrolled, and whether they’re receiving the required hours of instruction.
The audit, conducted by the Michigan Auditor General and released Friday, examined records from the 2016-17 school year. It found that schools failed to show that students participated in all of their classes. The schools couldn’t document participation in at least one course for 52% of students whose records were inspected.
Meanwhile, the charter school authorizers responsible for overseeing the schools failed to intervene.
“It supports concerns I’ve had for a really long time,” said Casandra Ulbrich, president of the Michigan Board of Education. “The legislature needs to provide clearer legal language for the department to have strong oversight ability when it comes to both authorizers and charter schools.”
The audit examined records related to 7 of the 13 cyber charter schools that existed in 2016-2017. (There are currently 16.) The schools were overseen by six different authorizers, including public universities and traditional school districts.
Auditors inspected student attendance documents for 278 students. They also examined key school documents and interactions between the Michigan Department of Education and the school authorizers.
Only one of the schools and authorizers included in the audit responded to Chalkbeat’s request for comment.
James Middleditch, director of the cyber school at WAY Michigan, one of the schools that was audited, said his team met with charter school advocates Friday to discuss the audit.
“We’re definitely going to be taking a look at that and seeing what (changes) we can come up with,” he said. “We follow MDE guidance.”
The audit also flags a lack of financial transparency at the schools. And it notes that few cyber school students received funds to cover their wireless bills, despite a state law that appears to require the schools to cover those costs.
The audit will likely fuel ongoing criticism of cyber charter schools, which offer entirely virtual instruction to students in grades K-12 across Michigan. Studies of the full-time virtual programs in Michigan note that their courses have an average pass rate of 53%, far below the statewide average of 90% for all schools.
Governors from both parties proposed cutting funding to cyber schools in recent years, arguing that they have lower costs than physical schools and are insufficiently transparent, but those proposals didn’t go anywhere in the GOP-led legislature.
Still, one top Republican said the audit raised legitimate questions about how fully virtual programs, including cyber schools, should be required to interact with their students.
In the fall of 2020, Rep. Pamela Hornberger, chair of the House Education Committee, led a successful push to create minimum requirements for school contact with virtual learners.
She initially looked to cyber schools as a model, she said, but discarded the idea after realizing that their requirements for engaging students weren’t robust.
She said she hopes the new audit “will open up a convo (about online learning requirements) and will lead us to some better outcomes for students.”
Enrollment in cyber schools shot up during the last school year, perhaps because most schools in the state were operating at least partly online. Early evidence suggests that students are largely opting for a return to in-person classrooms when given the choice.
Still, even before the pandemic, Michigan had an estimated 25,000 fully online students — or about 1% of all students. That’s a higher proportion than almost any other state.
The schools’ failure to account for all their students echoes scandals in Ohio and Indiana, where cyber schools were found to have artificially inflated enrollment figures to bring in more state funding.
The problems uncovered in the audit may be simply the result of poor bookkeeping, virtual learning experts said. But they added that maintaining proper records is not difficult to do and would avoid even the appearance of bad behavior.
In a response to the audit, Michigan Education Department officials said their pupil accounting protocols were updated after 2016-17. They did not respond to questions about whether those changes would have avoided the problems identified in the audit.
The audit also points to failures in the department’s attempts to ensure that charter school authorizers, the entities tasked with overseeing cyber charters, are doing their jobs. Auditors found that authorizers sometimes ignored oversight suggestions from the Michigan Department of Education, and that the department did not force the issue.
“How strange is that process?” asked Joe Friedhoff, vice president of Michigan Virtual, a nonprofit that provides virtual curriculum and trains school districts to provide high-quality virtual instruction. The department “is providing oversight but doesn’t have the power to make sure (cyber school authorizers) are adhering to that advice and making positive changes.”
In response to the audit, the department explained that its oversight process is “voluntary and collaborative” in accordance with state law. Officials added that they would expand monitoring to include all areas of cyber compliance and pay more attention to less experienced authorizers.