A bill proposing changes in funding and regulation of online schools could be ready for introduction in a couple of weeks, but the details are still being hammered out, Senate President Brandon Shaffer says.

Testing illustrationShaffer, a Longmont Democrat, has long raised questions about online schools, a rapidly growing segment of Colorado education. He considered introducing legislation during the 2011 session but didn’t, and late last year he asked the state auditor to conduct an emergency audit of online schools.

Articles published last October by Education News Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network found the state is spending $100 million a year on online schools that are largely failing their students and that the state funding system allows schools to retain state money after students have left. (See series.)

Shaffer’s request was rebuffed Nov. 8 by the Legislative Audit Committee on a 4-4 party-line vote. After that decision Shaffer promised legislation to “rein in” online schools, saying, “Despite overwhelming evidence of widespread fraud and abuse by online schools, they blocked an audit that would have saved Colorado taxpayers millions of dollars.” (See story.)

During an interview Tuesday, Shaffer indicated the bill would address funding of online schools and give the state Department of Education additional regulatory tools over online schools.

“Conceptually we’re looking at quality standards [and] making sure the funding follows the quality programs,” Shaffer said. Online programs currently receive a flat annual amount of funding per student.

But Shaffer wasn’t prepared to offer details on his thinking, saying ideas still are being vetted with a variety of interest groups and online experts.

Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont
Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont

For instance, Shaffer said funding proposals are “a level of detail we haven’t really finalized. [That] would be one of the more controversial provisions.”

John Cevette, Shaffer’s chief of staff, said a variety of interest groups have been consulted about the bill but that he and the president are relying most on the advice of experts who don’t have direct interests in online schools.

Shaffer said Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley, is interested in carrying the online bill in the House. Young, a former teacher and college instructor, was appointed last summer to fill a vacant seat, and 2012 will be his first legislative session.

Asked about other possible cosponsors, Shaffer said, “We’re still early in the process” of gathering support.

Shaffer is a Democratic candidate in the 4th Congressional District, and questions have been raised about the potential fate of a major bill with his name on it in the Republican-controlled House.

“If me being involved becomes a problem,” Shaffer said, “I’m more than ready” to have another lawmaker carry the bill.