A recent state audit of 12 of the biggest alternative school systems in the state, including Monroe’s large alternative school system, questioned almost half the money the school districts spent on certain classes.
Districts state-wide spent a total of $124 million on what are called Alternative Learning Experiences, or ALEs, in the 2011-2012 school year.
Of that money, 47 districts spent $4.6 million on services to students.
The state audited the 12 districts that spent more than $100,000, including Monroe. They reported March 26 that of the $3.6 million spent by those districts, they questioned $1.5 million.
And the Auditor’s Office also found numerous other issues, including a lack of oversight of some community-taught classes and a failure to complete some paperwork.
The state also examined 10 parent-partner programs, of which Sky Valley Education Center was one. Among those schools, the state found an error rate of 45 percent in terms of compliance with current regulations.
However, the audit did not break the data down by school district, so little was discernible about the degree to which Monroe was found at fault among those school districts.
But the school district is taking the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to task anyway, over regulations that they say are unreasonable.
In 2011, a new rule for ALEs went into effect, requiring that the classes and services offered to students in traditional schools be “substantially similar” to those offered in ALEs.
Therefore, if Sky Valley Education Center offers art, then Monroe High School also has to offer art.
But how similar must be those offerings?
Sky Valley Education is a parent-partner program. The program offers parents or other people with expertise in a particular field to offer students a class in that subject. That has given SVEC a very eclectic course catalog.
Listed among more traditional class options such as algebra and geometry are fencing, Irish dance, Japanese, novel writing, rock climbing, theater history and ukelele.
According to school district spokesperson Rosemary O’Neil, of the $490,000 that the Monroe School District spent, the state questioned $89,000, and nearly all of that was over classes that didn’t have analogs in the rest of the district’s schools.
That’s problematic, said O’Neil. The state, for one thing, was stringent in its definition of “substantially similar.”
Fencing, for example, is a physical education class. Physical education has certain parameters and standards as defined by the state. The Monroe School District continues to argue to the state that as long as those standards are being met at all schools, in other words, as long as all schools have P.E. classes that fit state requirements for movement, exercise and so on, the actual classes shouldn’t matter.
“How you get to those standards are individualized by particular school,” she said.
In fact, regular schools aren’t required to offer substantially similar classes, she noted.
“If we had two traditional high schools and one had French and the other didn’t, there wouldn’t be a problem,” she said.
The school district has made the case to the auditor that the goals and standards are the same between classes, and that only difference between schools is the way students achieve those standards.
“I don’t know that the auditors will revise their opinion, but further discussions need to happen at the OSPI,” said O’Neil.
The other reason the Auditor’s Office gave for questioning that $1.5 million was that when ALEs contracted with instructors who didn’t have teaching certification, as is a common practice in ALEs that recognize parents as the primary educator and the district as a partner, the districts failed to provide sufficient supervision.
So when a parent who is skilled at he sword-fighting skill of fencing offers to teach a P.E. class in fencing, the school district is free to offer her a contract to do that, but must also make sure her class meets state standards for a P.E. class.
“[Instructors] don’t have to have a valid Washington State teaching certificate as long they are being overseen by someone with a teaching certificate,” explained Dale Sando, Assistant Audit Manager at the Auditor’s Office. “They should be involved with designing the curriculum, helping set up lessons, that sort of thing.”
Neither Sando nor O’Neill had information detailing to what extent the state found fault with Monroe’s staff supervision.
O’Neil only commented that keeping up with ever-changing rules of ALEs has proven a challenge over the years.
“You launch a process and find out months later it wasn’t the right process,” she said. “We strive to be as accurate as we can and keep on top of all the changes.”
Music and P.E. spending
Another thing the state found was that money for community-based instruction tended to be spent on music and P.E.
Much of the more traditional material such as math, English and science taught at ALEs is done by certified teachers.
When the districts pay community-based instructors to provide education, it tends to be for other things.
Also, Monroe is one of the districts that offers enrollment to students statewide through the Washington Virtual Academy, an on-line option. Most subjects are taught through the coursework, but credit for things that require interactive instruction, such as music and P.E., are acquired other ways.
The school district often pays for music instruction or access to physical education for that student.
Among the 10 parent-partner ALEs audited, piano and guitar lessons accounted for $569,000 of community-contracted instruction.
And gymnastics, YMCA instruction and horseback riding lessons accounted for $297,000. In all, those offerings consumed 52 percent of community contract expenditures for the ALEs in the audit, at an average per-student, per-activity cost of $226.
State-wide, P.E. and music also ranked highest among the classes questioned as not substantially similar to those offered in the rest of the districts’ schools.
The other main reasons the Auditor’s Office questioned the spending had mostly to do with record keeping, most commonly inadequate or missing monthly progress reviews of student progress. Also, ALEs are supposed to get approval for student learning plans from a certified instructor; many schools lacked those plans to some degree.
And when a student, say, in Grand Coulee, decides to enroll in Monroe’s WAVA program, the Grand Coulee district is supposed to sign a release. Some ALE schools hadn’t secure those releases.
Students getting an education through an ALE often get the majority of their education from their parents. But as they are not actually home-schooled, they are required to check in with the ALE at least every 20 days. The Auditor’s Office reported that some schools couldn’t show records of those check-ins.
And finally, parents are supposed to sign a statement of understudying indicating that they are aware of the differences between an ALE and homeschooling, and some of the districts didn’t have those on file.
Of the record keeping issues, no information was given of the findings by school, and so it wasn’t clear the extent to which the Monroe School District had been found at fault. An email to the OSPI asking for that information did not receive a reply by press time.
Unlike many audits, this audit seems to have been purely informational. There are no sanctions attached to unsatisfactory findings, and no funding is currently threatened or status as an ALE at risk of revocation.
“It’s not an audit where you get to have an exit conference,” said O’Neil. “We believe the legislature wanted it.”
At the conclusion of the audit, however, the Auditor’s Office did makes some recommendations.
ALE directors and staff should get annual training to stay aware of the most current regulations, they said. And, they said, there should be internal audits of the mandatory records done periodically.