Ohio Again Hides Rotten Record of Huge On-Line Charter School from Federal Regulators

Over the weekend, Ohio’s Plunderbund blog demanded an explanation from the Ohio Department of Education about the continued exclusion of on-line charter schools from Ohio’s reporting to the U.S. Department of Education.

Ohio had been asked by the federal government to further justify its qualifications for a $71 million federal grant to expand charter schools and to pay for the state takeover of the Youngstown Schools. The federal government had been shamed into demanding additional evidence that Ohio is capable of overseeing charter schools after David Hansen, the author of the original grant proposal, was forced to resign last summer when it was made known that he had developed a charter school accountability system that neglected to consider the performance of Ohio’s notorious on-line charters.  Then last week, the press exposed that Hansen’s federal grant application had further misrepresented the performance of Ohio charter schools.  While the state had identified six low performing charter schools in its application last summer, a letter sent on January 29, 2016 by Ohio’s Interim Superintendent of Public Instruction, Lonny Rivera, identifies 57 charter schools in trouble. And while last summer the state had claimed 93 charter schools as “high-performing,” the new letter puts only 59 of the state’s charter schools in that top category.

Plunderbund now points out that the Ohio Department of Education, in its recent letter of explanation to the federal government, also included this footnote: “Note: Only general and special education site-based community schools were included in the original and updated analyses of high quality/high performing and poor performing schools.”

Plunderbund wonders why the notorious Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) was again omitted from the ratings. To be listed as a Poor Performer, a charter school must receive a D or F grade in what the state calls its “value-added” rating and a D or F grade in what the state calls its overall “performance index.”  ECOT, charges Plunderbund, has earned an F in “value-added,” and a D in overall performance for the past two years: “ECOT is clearly a failure and clearly fits Ohio’s criteria of being a poor-performing charter school, so why did the Ohio Department of Education amend the reporting criteria to exclude them?  The hard truth is that Ohio’s other large charter e-schools—ECOT’s competition—barely miss being included (by their slightly higher scores), so ECOT is really the only e-school of any size that was excluded!”

William Lager, founder of ECOT, has grown rich from ECOT, and Plunderbund charges, his political influence may well be protecting his school from scrutiny:  “Lager, the founder of ECOT, is also the owner of two privately-held companies that provide both the management services (Altair Learning Management) and full curriculum (IQ Innovations) to the failing on-line school.”  Plunderbund explains: “(F)unds that have gone from taxpayers through ECOT and directly to Lager’s companies over the past 15 years” total $61,194,695 to Altair Learning Management and $91,075,611 to IQ Innovations.  For the same 15 year period, Lager has made political donations to Ohio politicians totaling $2,358,541.61.

Interestingly the continuing scandal about Ohio’s on-line charter schools comes at the same time scrutiny of virtual schools is increasing.  Marc Sternberg, director of education philanthropy at the Walton Family Foundation, and Marc Holley, the Walton Foundation’s evaluation-unit director, recently published a commentary in Education Week to announce that, based on research the Walton Foundation has funded, the Foundation will be reevaluating its grant making for on-line education.  Citing studies underwritten by the Walton Foundation and published last fall by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (Stanford CREDO) the Center on Reinventing Public Education and Mathematica Policy Research, Sternberg and Holley write: “The results are, in a word, sobering.  The CREDO study found that over the course of a school year, the students in virtual charters learned the equivalent of 180 fewer days in math and 72 fewer days in reading than their peers in traditional charter schools, on average.  This is stark evidence that most online charters have a negative impact on students’ academic achievement.  The results are particularly significant because of the reach and scope of online charters: They currently enroll some 200,000 children in 200 schools operating across 26 states.  If virtual charters were grouped together and ranked as a single school district, it would be the ninth-largest in the country and among the worst–performing.”

The funders from the Walton Foundation, one of the most prominent philanthropic supporters of charter schools, conclude: “As a result of these findings, we at the foundation will ask new, more rigorous questions of online charter operators when we review their funding proposals.”

The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow is Ohio’s largest charter school with an enrollment of approximately 15,000 students.  Plunderbund is correct to demand an explanation from the Ohio Department of Education about why the Department has chosen once again to omit ECOT’s shoddy performance record as Ohio explains itself to charter school grant makers at the U.S. Department of Education.

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