As this blog pointed out earlier in the week, Ohio has begun asking online charter schools to document that the students—for which the state is reimbursing charter schools $6,000 per pupil—are not merely signing up, but are also following through by participating actively and doing assigned work. The most notorious of Ohio’s online charters, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), has protested, trying to put off the requirement that it document that students are “attending school”—not merely signing up and then disappearing. ECOT has also asked to have Ohio’s new regulations softened so that virtual schools would not have to document that students are actually attending school.
Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel of the Columbus Dispatch report: “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.”
Why would the Ohio legislature soften the new regulations it passed under pressure last fall? William Lager who founded ECOT and who privately owns the two lucrative companies that create its curriculum and manage its operation, is among the largest donors of political contributions in Ohio. Candisky and Siegel explain: “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.”
Late in March, to try to protect Ohio’s recent efforts to begin regulating charters, Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni of Youngstown introduced Senate Bill 298 to try to stop the watering down of charter school oversight. If passed, Schiavoni’s bill would require e-schools to keep accurate records of the number of hours students spend doing coursework. It would require the online school to notify the Ohio Department of Education if a student failed to log-in for ten consecutive days. It would require that a qualified teacher check in with each student once a month to monitor active participation. Because Senator Peggy Lehner, chair of the Ohio Senate Education Committee, has seemed to Senate President Keith Faber overly sympathetic to complaints about the big virtual academies, Faber instead assigned the bill to the Senate Finance Committee for hearings.
Everyone assumed that Senator Schiavoni’s bill would simply die without a hearing, but this week the Finance Committee did hold hearings, and Brianne Kramer arrived to testify. From November 2013 until November 2014, Kramer, now an education professor at Ohio Northern University, taught at the Ohio Virtual Academy, one of Ohio’s large online schools and an affiliate of K12, Inc., among the largest national for-profit charter management chains. She says she was interested in teaching there because virtual schools were the subject of her Ph.D. dissertation, and she wanted to experience personally what it would be like to work at such a school.
Based on what she learned while working at Ohio Virtual Academy, Dr. Kramer told the Finance Committee that she thinks the Ohio Senate should definitely pass Senator Schiavoni’s bill to regulate attendance reporting at online schools: “During my time at OHVA (Ohio Virtual Academy), I saw attendance issues that were so outrageous, I could not fathom how the school was able to skirt the system. When I left in November 2014, there were 487 K-12th grade students who had not yet logged attendance hours, and only 89 of those students were currently in the truancy reporting system after 11 weeks of school. There were also 1,826 students who were missing 25 or more hours of attendance, and of those students only 594 had begun the truancy process.”
Kramer describes two separate and, she claims, never-reconciled systems for tracking students’ attendance at Ohio Virtual Academy: “There are two systems to the school—the OLS, which is the overall school, and the LMS, the learning management system where the students’ classes were found. When parents or guardians logged attendance hours, they used the OLS system. The LMS system kept track of the time the students spent in their classrooms or in Class Connects. All course materials and assignments were in the classrooms, and the Class Connects were the live video platforms where teachers would hold classes at designated times throughout the school day. Because of the way these two systems are set up, it does not allow for an accurate portrayal of a student’s attendance. For example, a student may have only logged into the LMS for 3 hours that week, but the student’s parent or guardian had logged 25 hours for the week. While OHVA does indicate that some student work hours are outside the LMS, I believe the attendance reported to the state should reflect the actual time spent in the classroom.” “If children are not in class and if they are not engaged in learning… if parents can simply input hours with very little penalty from the virtual school, is that a quality education?”
She adds more generally that she worries about the high mobility rate at the virtual schools. OHVA’s mobility rate is 39%, and the students who leave return to their home school districts having lost ground academically. She concludes: “As a professor, I would not want my pre-service teachers to teach in a virtual school. As a parent, I would not send my children to a virtual school. As a concerned citizen, I want reassurance that my tax money that is being diverted from my local school district to the virtual schools be used to promote quality education, not further profit-making schemes at the corporate level. All students in the state of Ohio are entitled to a quality education. I believe it is our duty to ensure the proper policies are in place to ensure this for all children.”
We need to hope that the Senate Finance Committee is really looking for honest feedback about the need for Senate Bill 298, and not merely going through the motions of holding hearings on this education bill that seems to have been assigned for hearings to the wrong committee.