For years and years, Ohio has negligently failed to demand that online charter schools submit accurate attendance records. In the meantime the state has kept on paying the schools for the students they claim to serve. While the state has continued to say it would crack down, oversight has been blocked by power and money.
More specifically, in 2016, the Ohio Department of Education began asking for attendance records, but the largest of the schools, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), said it hadn’t been collecting the information because the state had never asked the school to document that students were spending time online at the e-schools. The state, it said, had required the school to provide 920 hours of curriculum for its students every year, but not to prove the students were actually sitting at their computers using the materials. It seems clear that political contributions to Ohio’s legislators from William Lager, ECOT’s founder and for-profit operator, ensured that the legislature avoided consideration of any kind of law to demand the submission of an accurate student count.
A year ago, the legislature changed the rules and asked the Ohio Department of Education to begin collecting the data. And the Department conducted a preliminary analysis that showed that ECOT, which collected $109 million for educating the 15,300 students it says it serves, must return $64 million for the 2015-2016 school year alone. ECOT went to court, and after a judge ruled that ECOT must pay back the money and start submitting accurate numbers, ECOT appealed the decision. This blog has been tracking the ECOT scandal.
Patrick O’Donnell reports for the Plain Dealer that, “ECOT lost its first challenge in Franklin County Common Pleas Court and is now appealing its case to the 10th Ohio District Court of Appeals. That court had its hearing on the case earlier this month and a ruling could come in the next couple of months. A dispute over one of the judges on the three-judge panel comparing ECOT founder William Lager, a major donor to Ohio Republicans, to a Russian oligarch could delay that ruling.”
O’Donnell explains that other online schools in the state have also been found inflating their students’ numbers, but as ECOT’s lawsuit drags on, the state education department has been unable to crack down on the smaller virtual academies: “Ohio’s attempts to recover about $20 million in state tax funding from eight online charter schools has stalled for more than six months while a much larger battle over more than $60 million from e-school giant ECOT lingers in appeals court. The year-long fight between the Ohio Department of Education and ECOT… has also delayed the state legislature from sorting out how to avoid e-school funding controversies in the future. Eight months after Ohio Auditor Dave Yost called on legislators to find a better way to measure how well online schools educate students and a better way for Ohio to fund the schools, legislators have not acted. Despite many agreeing that Ohio needs to overhaul its funding of online schools, no one has suggested a single bill, held a single hearing or publicly called for any research.”
Actually Andrew Brenner, the chair of the Ohio House Education Committee, has now proposed a change in the e-school evaluation process. But it is a change that would relax state oversight instead of strengthening it. Today, in the way Ohio oversees the many nonprofit organizations that are permitted to sponsor charter schools, there is a requirement, “that the academic performance of the multiple charter schools in each overseer’s portfolio of schools be weighted by the number of students in each school… As the evaluation ratings stand now, the state report card grades for a 10,000-student online school count 50 times as much as grades for a small, 200-student neighborhood charter school. If the big school has great state grades under current rules, the (sponsor’s) entire portfolio of schools looks good when results are averaged together. But if the bigger schools have poor grades, as some large online schools do, the entire collection of schools looks bad.” In fact the huge online academies are notorious for their dismal ratings. O’Donnell quotes Stephen Dyer, a former legislator and journalist describing Andrew Brenner: “He’s doing the ECOT fix. Wonderful.” O’Donnell confirms Dyer’s suspicion: “ECOT and its supporters backed a similar proposal two years ago, but failed to gain legislative support.”
Joe Schiavoni, the minority leader of the Ohio Senate, who has repeatedly proposed a bill to crack down on lax attendance reporting by the e-schools, believes the proposed change is aimed at relaxing standards for the all-powerful virtual academies: “This would be a break for them. The cynic in me says they are looking for a break.” The bill Schiavoni has introduced in at least two different legislative sessions to regulate collection of attendance records at the e-schools has never made it out of committee in Ohio’s all-Republican dominated legislature.
Despite that many people across the country seem to believe it is possible to regulate charter schools to stamp out fraud and corruption, watching Ohio’s ECOT scandal has convinced me that money and power will render significant oversight impossible. However, in the past week there has been one small bright spot. Paolo Demaria, Ohio’s relatively new Superintendent of Public Instruction, just turned back $22 million in federal Charter Schools Program funds to the U.S. Department of Education. The federal Charter Schools Program invests in new charter school startups, and to his credit, Demaria says Ohio can’t use all the money because there are not enough quality applicants.
Here is the back story, in case you have forgotten. In the summer of 2015, a huge public outcry arose over $71 million granted to Ohio from the federal Charter Schools Program. David Hansen, the man who wrote the federal grant proposal, was fired because his proposal was based on the false promise that our legislature had cracked down on sponsors of charter schools. But the U.S. Department of Education made the grant anyway. Ohio’s Congressional delegation and especially Senator Sherrod Brown demanded that the U.S. Department of Education provide extra oversight of Ohio’s grant because our state’s regulations have been notoriously weak.
Now Superintendent Demaria explains that Ohio has cracked down—at least somewhat—and due to stronger oversight, the state does not have enough strong applicants to use all the grant money. Again, here is Patrick O’Donnell: “In a letter sent last week, Demaria said the state will use $49 (million) of the $71 million over five years, not the full amount. He said the lower amount ‘more accurately reflects our eligible pool of prospective community school grantees based on our shared priorities’ of only giving money to strong schools.” Big problems remain with state oversight of the sponsors. O’Donnell reminds us: “Only five of the more than 60 sponsors in Ohio earned ‘effective’ ratings and none were rated ‘exemplary’ in the fall. The vast majority were rated as ‘ineffective’ or worse… The state is looking to shut down five charter school sponsor authorizers it rated as ‘poor’… as part of a plan to improve charter schools across the state.”
Superintendent Demaria deserves credit for his integrity. We shouldn’t hold our collective breath, however, about the capacity of Ohio’s legislators to create regulations that might turn off the flow of political contributions.