Last fall the Ohio legislature managed to pass a law that minimally regulates charter schools despite huge pressure from Ohio’s online charter profiteers to block the measure. But already the lobbyists for the same profitable online schools are asking the legislature to water down the regulations.
Two weeks ago Brent Larkin, now a columnist and the former editorial director of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, penned one of the most scathing condemnations of politicians I’ve ever read. His subject—for-profit charter czars’ efforts to purchase lax regulation of Ohio’s charters with political donations to Ohio’s legislators and Governor John Kasich: “Few human beings are more worthless than morally bankrupt politicians who consciously game the system in ways that make learning even more difficult for struggling young students… For years, one of the worst-kept secrets in the nation’s public education community was that Ohio’s legislators would gladly sell out children in return for sizable campaign contributions from charter schools run by for-profit management firms. That began to change last year, when reporting by newspapers throughout the state… exposed this state as the poster child for corruption and failure in its half-hearted attempts to require that the for-profit charter schools actually educate children.” But now, continues Larkin, “Just weeks after long-overdue charter school reforms took effect, Rosenberger (Cliff Rosenberger, Ohio’s House speaker) and his sneaky band of legislative colleagues want to gut them.”
In mid-February Jim Siegel and Catherine Candisky reported for the Columbus Dispatch that lobbyists for the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), Ohio’s largest charter school and its most notorious online academy, have been pressing legislators to delay “for at least a year new attendance-tracking requirements for e-schools, and change the basis for e-schools’ funding to whether at least 900 hours of instruction are simply offered to each student who enrolls and receives a computer, rather than requiring that students actually participate in all 900 hours.” Candisky and Siegel remind us: “William Lager, ECOT founder and operator, was the second-largest individual donor to legislative Republicans in the last election cycle, giving $393,500, plus another $202,000 in 2015.”
Candisky and Siegel updated their story earlier this week, noting that, “The privately operated, publicly funded schools get about $6,000 per student each year.” Candisky and Siegel’s new report focuses on new attendance reviews of online schools that the Ohio Department of Education has begun conducting this year: “Aaron Rausch, director of budget and school funding for the Ohio Department of Education, said records for 104 charter schools will be examined this year, including the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, the state’s largest online charter school. Enrollment is used to calculate state funding; ECOT has about 18,000 students.” ECOT was to have been reviewed in February, but the school rescheduled the review for March. Siegel and Candisky again explain that: “School officials from ECOT reportedly crafted a softened attendance-tracking amendment—floated recently in the Ohio House—which would require online schools only to offer the statewide minimum 920 hours of instruction per school year but not require students to actually participate in these hours.”
In other words Lager—who reaps all of ECOT’s profits—and his lobbyists are angling to get ECOT’s attendance review delayed until they can get the legislature to change the law so that ECOT can continue collecting $6,000-per-student for all 18,000 young people it says are enrolled. The Ohio Department of Education’s enrollment review would, of course, expose the number of students who ECOT pretends study full time, the students who don’t really spend enough hours engaging at their computers with the school’s online curriculum to qualify as real students.
And, according to Candisky and Siegel at the Dispatch, there is reason to be skeptical, based on reviews already conducted of some of the state’s smaller online schools: “Provost Academy, a Columbus-based online charter school, agreed to return about $800,000 of the $1 million it received in state aid during the 2014-2015 school year. A review by the Education Department gave the school credit for only 32 full-time students, not the 155 the school reported. Another online charter, Lakewood Digital Academy in Hebron, will pay about $150,000 back to the state after officials found it had only 16 full-time students, not the 57 it claimed… State officials found Provost counted students who logged in for 60 minutes a day as attending a full day. State rules require them to attend at least five hours.” Several other online charter schools are projecting significant enrollment declines next year, presumably because they won’t be able to count as many students as fully enrolled as they have claimed in the past.
The Columbus Dispatch‘s editorialized on this issue earlier this week: “The revelation that one of Ohio’s online charter schools was vastly overpaid by the state based on undocumentable enrollment statistics, and the fact that the school will have to repay that money, should send a message to all online schools that they need to adequately document enrollment or they will face the same unpleasant accounting… It’s natural to wonder if similar problems exist at other online charter schools. Because if they did, the amount of money wasted could be jaw-dropping. These e-schools are projected to be paid $275 million this year for educating 39,000 students. If all had problems documenting their attendance to the degree at Provost Academy, that would mean that $220 million was paid unjustifiably.” About ECOT’s proposal that online charters would be required by the legislature merely to offer 920 hours of instruction but would not be held responsible for ensuring that students actually spent time studying the material online, the Dispatch editorial board is astounded: “Obviously, these provisions would make it possible for online charters to collect millions of dollars of taxpayer money with no guarantee that online students actually are receiving an education.”
The Dispatch reporters remind readers of what is now ancient history: ECOT’s submission of inflated enrollment figures back in 2000-2001, its first year of operation. “ECOT was required to repay the state $1.6 million in 2002 for enrollment problems during its first year, 2000-2001. ECOT said it enrolled 2,270 students, but records showed that only seven logged into the school’s computer system during that time.”
The Walton Family Foundation, a long supporter of school choice and charter schools, has announced it will be reevaluating its policy of making grants to online charter schools. 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.”
Maybe the Walton Foundation should underwrite a study to explore one basic variable. Is it possible that a major issue at online charter schools is that students, many of them unsupervised while at home during the school day, may not actually be “attending” school even though the schools are being reimbursed by state governments with millions of tax dollars based on dishonest or shoddy or difficult-to-verify reports submitted by the schools?