Everybody has suspected that Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, Ohio’s biggest charter school and one of the nation’s largest fully online charter schools, has been collecting tens of millions of tax dollars for years for educating phantom students. Yesterday ECOT lost in its attempt to block an Ohio Department of Education audit to confirm that it is actually educating all 15,000 students it says are enrolled. Yesterday morning this blog covered ECOT’s attempt last Friday to block the audit by filing a lawsuit.
A court hearing on ECOT’s lawsuit took place promptly yesterday, and yesterday afternoon Jim Siegel of the Columbus Dispatch reported: “Franklin County Judge Stephen McIntosh denied ECOT’s request for a temporary restraining order blocking the state from moving forward with its attendance audit that was scheduled to start today (Monday). ECOT filed suit in Franklin County Common Pleas Court on Friday to block the Ohio Department of Education from poring through the online charter school’s attendance records…. School officials argue the department is improperly requiring the school to provide proof of student log-in hours to show students attended the state-minimum 920 hours of (annual) learning time.”
ECOT claims that its students should be given credit for hours of learning when they are not online, but the state is demanding documentation that students are logged in for five hours each day and actively using the online curriculum being provided by the school. ECOT claims that a 2003 contract agreement between the school and the Ohio Department of Education requires that to qualify for an annual per pupil reimbursement from the state, ECOT need merely provide five hours each day of learning opportunities, but not be required to demonstrate that students are actually using the curriculum.
Patrick O’Donnell of The Plain Dealer reports that ECOT also claimed in its lawsuit that, “the department had told online schools last year that it would start requiring more documentation of all student work starting with the 2016-17 school year. But it changed course in January, ECOT says, and started requiring full documentation for all of the 2015-16 school year, which was already well underway. Applying that rule retroactively is unfair, ECOT says.” O’Donnell adds, “Department officials told The Plain Dealer earlier this year that the department has always had the authority to ask for more documentation, even if it has not always required it. And state lawyers said in their court filing that the state has the right to see if students are doing schoolwork, not just if classes are offered.”
O’Donnell of The Plain Dealer and Siegel of the Dispatch both quote Douglas Cole, a former Ohio solicitor general hired in this case to represent the Ohio Department of Education: “ODE, as a faithful steward of public funds, is entitled to determine whether students are actually receiving the education for which the public is paying. That is true as a matter of statute, ODE practice, and, to the extent applicable, the funding agreement between ODE and ECOT.” “The public interest lies in seeing that public funds are not wasted and in documenting how they are spent.” Siegel adds, “The department also notes that ECOT’s contract with its sponsor, ‘requires it to measure actual student participation in determining what educational opportunities are offered.’ It also notes that the school’s truancy policy calls for students to participate in a minimum 25 hours of coursework each week to avoid truancy issues.”
In his 10th Period Blog, Steve Dyer, former chair of the Ohio House Education Subcommittee of the Finance Committee quotes more of Douglas Cole’s filing that responds to ECOT’s complaints: “Under a plain, common-sense reading of the… (charter school) funding statutes, ECOT is required to track, and ODE to reimburse for, actual student participation. Finding otherwise would render numerous (Ohio Revised code) provisions… meaningless, and, as a more fundamental matter, the statutory scheme would not make sense.”
Yesterday ECOT Superintendent Rick Teeters sent a message to parents and the school’s supporters asking them to call the Department of Education in protest because, he said, the state is trying to close down the school. O’Donnell quotes Teeters’ message: “Without court intervention, these underhanded procedural changes would severely limit our ability to provide a quality school experience. In fact, they would likely force us and other e-schools to close our doors altogether.”
Siegel reports that when, “Asked about ECOT’s concern that the attendance audit could shut it down, Ohio School Board President Tom Gunlock said, “So be it.” Most state officials speculate that Teeters’ alarm about immediate school closure is a scare tactic.
According to Steve Dyer, “Even though more children fail to graduate on time at ECOT than any other school in the country, Gov. John Kasich, Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, and former House Speaker Bill Batchelder all spoke at ECOT’s graduation ceremonies.” And at the end of yesterday’s report in The Plain Dealer, Patrick O’Donnell reminds readers: The school and its founder William Lager are among the largest donors to the Republican party in the state.”
Many of us in Ohio hope that this time ECOT and Bill Lager will be held accountable, but we aren’t holding our breath.