Ohio Has Dabbled in Charter School Oversight but Huge Problems Remain

Buried in all the election news this past week was a story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer about the closure of the OAK Leadership Institute charter school by its sponsor, now under pressure after the Ohio legislature began last winter to require the authorizors of these schools to close chronically under-performing charters.

Tucked  into the very end of that story are a couple of paragraphs about another aspect of the state’s recent efforts to regulate charter schools.  Patrick O’Donnell, whose story focuses on the auctioning off of the school’s equipment, explains: “Most of the proceeds should eventually go to the Cleveland school district. House Bill 2 changed state law to make sure that charter school supplies bought with state tax dollars are returned to schools.  Most of whatever is left after all school expenses are covered will go to the local school district.”

Ensuring that equipment purchased with tax dollars benefits the public when a charter school is closed is one of the biggest reforms accomplished with our state’s pitifully minimal new regulations. It used to be that the charter management organization got to keep the equipment (or money from sale of the equipment) that the public purchased for the now-out-of-business charter school.

Strengthened oversight is definitely not the whole story of Ohio’s relationship with its charter school sector.  The state’s failure to regulate fraud and abuse is typified by the long-running story of the notorious Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, an online academy that continues to operate thanks to the political power and political contributions of its operator, William Lager.

Now that the election is over and we move toward a lame duck legislative session when increased oversight of online charter schools’ attendance records is once again supposed to be considered, here is the most recent outcry from the editors of the Columbus Dispatch: “Imagine the public outrage if a state agency was caught forking over more than $100 million a year in taxpayer dollars to a wealthy business that submitted invoices for phony work. Oh, and the victims of this scam were children. Sadly, no imagination is necessary. A Dispatch review of login information for 699 students in the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow found that scores of kids covered by state subsidies were absent for 30 days or more.  As many as 7 in 10 missed so many days last school year that they could be declared truant under state law…. Ohio taxpayers have been shelling out millions of dollars for a substandard product. And it reflects badly on the Ohio Department of Education, which for 16 years looked the other way; only recently did it begin demanding student login data to verify charter-school attendance, upon which the state subsidies are based.”  The Dispatch reminds us that ECOT  “demands to be paid for making learning opportunities available, regardless of whether students participate; hence, its lackadaisical approach to truants.”

Bill Bush, the Dispatch reporter whose story motivated the newest editorial, explains: “In Ohio, students can miss no more than 15 days of school in a year before they risk being designated a ‘chronic truant,’ the most serious classification, requiring charges against the student and the student’s parents in juvenile court. Nearly two-thirds of ECOT students miss enough school to be chronic truants….”  When this matter was discussed in court earlier this fall, ECOT’s representative Neil Clark argued that one-fifth of ECOT’s students are older than 18, “so truancy laws don’t apply to them.”  And ECOT’s truancy officer, Patrick Tingler, explained that ECOT does not have tracking software to run reports to document a student’s chronic truancy.  Tingler explained in his court deposition that he had asked ECOT Superintendent Rick Teeters for better tracking software: “‘He took it under advisement,’ Tingler said, but never provided it.”  Apparently ECOT’s truancy software does throw up a red flag if a student misses 30 consecutive days: “After students log in, Tingler testified, he doesn’t track whether they do any classwork.  So long as a student logs in once every 30 days—even if they do no work—it resets his or her clock for another 30 days for both funding and truancy.”

When the legislature returns for this year’s final session now that the election is over, there is still a remote chance that lawmakers could consider the bill, proposed in the spring by the Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni to ensure that the state stops wasting tax dollars on the phantom students that ECOT and other online schools pretend they are educating, but the Akron Beacon Journal‘s editorial board is very skeptical that the legislature will take up Schiavoni’s proposed bill.  That newspaper’s editorial board notes that ECOT has received over $100 every year in tax dollars, that a recent state audit “found that the school overstated its enrollment by 143 percent, raising the possibility of the state seeking repayment of as much as $60 million,” that one of every six Ohio high school dropouts is from ECOT, and that William Lager has donated generously to legislative campaign funds with, “virtually the entire sum… landed in Republican coffers. The donation disparity does not surprise. Republicans have the power. From 2011, when Republicans regained total control of state government, to 2015, Lager routed their way more than $1 million in political money.” “These and other discouraging numbers explain why Joe Schiavoni, a Youngstown Democrat and the Senate minority leader, has proposed legislation that would require online schools to document precisely student participation. The bill should receive high priority. Instead, it has been pushed aside by the Republican leadership.”

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