OLYMPIA – Under a state education program designed as a blend of classrooms and home school, Washington taxpayers have in recent years paid for:
• Bible-based texts and videos,
• Private gym memberships,
• Horseback-riding lessons,
• Church repairs,
• Rafting and jet-boat trips,
• Summer camp,
• Hundreds of ski lift and movie tickets,
• Dozens of theme park tickets.
Those were among the eyebrow-raising expenditures discovered by state auditors looking into Alternative Learning Experience (ALE) programs at 18 school districts, including several across Eastern Washington. At least 158 districts around the state run such programs, which last year cost state taxpayers about $80 million.
The audits concluded that taxpayer money is apparently being used for things “that the funds may not have been intended for” and – in the case of the religious books and videos – that likely violate the state constitution. In numerous cases, auditors said, they could find no link between expenses and students’ learning plans.
“These are taxpayer dollars that go to education,” said state Auditor Brian Sonntag. “The public has some deserved expectation that those dollars be used on educational purposes.”
Local school officials respond that they’ve been doing the best they could with little guidance from Olympia. Some said they feel the auditors ignored their explanations that educational expenses were legitimate.
“We felt like we bent over backward to follow the rules,” said Mick Miller, superintendent of the Deer Park School District.
In many cases, the audit reports found school districts also weren’t properly documenting ALE students’ learning. As a result, districts were collecting more state money than they could justify. In school year 2003-2004, the auditors found that 96 percent of the school districts they examined had incorrectly calculated the number of student hours they submitted for state funding. The overpayments totaled nearly $800,000.
“Our folks weren’t trying to inflame things, but just raise several pretty significant issues,” said Sonntag.
Thousands of students
Since the 1980s, thousands of Washington children have been educated under ALE programs, a little-known hybrid between traditional public classrooms and home schooling. The programs include alternative schools, computer-based learning and “parent partner programs.” There are now about 19,000 students in 270 such programs statewide.
In the parent partner programs, a student files a learning plan with a local school district, which provides additional instruction. The district also often helps parents pay for educational supplies. But most of the teaching is done outside of school, typically by parents at home.
Deanne Cade, a mother in Elk, teaches her children under one of the programs. She was tired of the swearing and sexual harassment her young daughter experienced in public school. The Deer Park School District reimburses her for up to $500 a year, per student, in educational expenses.
The money helps pay for books, fabric for sewing lessons, a tutor for her learning-disabled son. Horseback-riding lessons, she said, were educational: learning about grooming the animals, cleaning their hooves, and learning about horse illnesses.
“That was money well-spent,” she said. “They learn about people, science and biology.”
For every student, school districts get an average of about $4,200 from the state.
A report last month by the state’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee concluded that “there has been no centralized oversight or control of these programs.” And in some cases, investigators found, districts are “very likely” claiming state tax money for students who are studying religious materials – an apparent violation of the state constitution. In fact, among 22 ALE programs that the committee questioned, nearly half said religious materials were OK.
Parents are of course free to have their children study anything they wish, said committee staffer Robert Krell. But if it’s religion-based, the state can’t buy it. Nor can the school district claim state money for that learning time. Both things, according to the audit, have been happening.
‘Very little oversight’
Furthermore, both Krell and the auditor’s office say that the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction – which created the programs – hasn’t been policing them.
“OSPI doesn’t view it as their proper role to provide any active oversight or monitoring,” Krell told lawmakers last month. “So there’s really been very little oversight at the state level.”
“Authority for decision-making in schools rests primarily with locally elected school boards,” responded Martin Mueller, OSPI’s director of learning and teaching support. Yes, the agency checks compliance with some programs, he said. “But we don’t have a cadre of specific program reviewers that go around the state and monitor programs like the auditor’s office does.”
The office in 1998 issued a memo telling school districts they couldn’t claim state funding for learning time spent on religious texts. But both the legislative investigators and state auditors said that OSPI hadn’t publicized that policy well.
It should be obvious, Mueller said.
“For me as an educator, knowing that public education is free of sectarian influence … somebody not knowing that puzzles me,” he said.
He said that state lawmakers – after repeated requests from OSPI – this spring allowed OSPI to tighten the program guidelines. The changes call for more detailed documentation by districts.
“I think we’re confident that the (new) rules are going to do what they’re supposed to do,” he said.
Several local school districts were included in the audits, which covered 2001 to 2004 reports and spending. Here’s what state auditors found:
•Deer Park: The district paid for hundreds of dollars of books, videos, DVDs and software at two Christian bookstores, including curriculum materials described by the publisher as “Bible-based.” The district also paid for ice skating, movies and piano lessons that auditors said were not linked to learning plans.
Superintendent Miller, who came to the district two years ago, said Deer Park has a firm policy about not reimbursing parents for religious materials. But some texts from religious publishers aren’t necessarily religious, he said, and are allowed.
Most – if not all – of the lessons and other expenditures are educational, he said, despite the auditor’s report.
“I can’t simulate a choir at home,” he said. “So I might need some kind of voice lesson.”
•Chewelah: Among the alternative learning expenses that the auditor’s office could find no educational purpose for were a hayride and pizza party, dozens of theme park tickets, hotel accommodations, ski lift tickets, ski rentals and lessons, and a jet boat tour for 84 people.
In addition, “student files included references to instructional materials with religious influence that may not be used in public education,” the auditors found.
Superintendent Marcus Morgan – who was hired in the fall of 2003 – said that things that might sound frivolous are often legitimate. If students go to Silverwood theme park, he said, they measure the angles on roller coasters – and get some fun out of it. And all district students have a chance to take ski lessons, he said.
“I can’t comment on things that happened before I came,” he said. “In what we do now, we want it linked to a learning plan.”
The use of religious materials in the learning plans, he said, likely stemmed from confusion over the program’s old guidelines.
“I don’t think people had a good idea of what the rules were,” he said.
•Mary Walker School District: The district spent thousands of tax dollars in renovations at the Springdale Community Church as well as $3,700 in computer video editing equipment for two children.
The church renovations included a fence and stairway that were needed because the district leases space for alternative-school classes there, Superintendent Kevin Jacka said.
“In Springdale, we don’t have a lot of renting options,” he said.
The video equipment was used to study filmmaking, with a documentary filmmaker neighbor serving as volunteer instructor, Jacka said. When the two children left the program, he said, the equipment was sold at market rates.
“I would consider them all legitimate expenses,” he said of the items the auditors questioned. “This is alternative education. Some of these things stand out because you’re talking about two kids.”
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