Ohio’s Failure to Oversee Online and Dropout Recovery Schools Is Even Bigger Than ECOT Scandal

ECOT, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, is the symbol of a much bigger problem in Ohio and across a number of states: an out-of-control sector of cyber schools and so-called “dropout recovery schools” whose savvy operators and owners have learned how to skirt and manipulate state laws that merely assumed entrepreneurs would run schools for the purpose of benefiting their students instead of lining their own pockets.  That was an incredibly naive assumption.

In her new expose of EdisonLearning’s Capital High School in Columbus, Ohio, For-Profit Schools Get State Dollars for Dropouts Who Rarely Drop In, Heather Vogell demonstrates that Ohio’s problem is much bigger than ECOT, and explores the outrageous scandal across several states of dropout recovery schools sucking profits from the scarce dollars in state education budgets: “Such schools aggressively recruit as many students as possible, and sometimes count them even after they stop showing up, a practice that can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer-paid revenue for empty desks. Auditors have accused for-profit dropout recovery schools in Ohio, Illinois and Florida of improperly collecting public money for vanished students… So-called ‘dropout recovery’ schools are increasingly popular, with many setting up shop in poverty-stricken city neighborhoods. In Chicago this past year, about 8,000 students attended such schools. In Ohio in the 2014-2015 school year, more than 16,000 students did, including some who attended online-only programs.”

Vogell examines the Ohio dropout recovery schools being sponsored by EdisonLearning—Capital High School in Columbus and a chain of 8 EdisonLearning dropout recovery schools across the state, the Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academies: “For-profit school management companies like Capital’s parent, EdisonLearning, have rushed into this niche, taking advantage of the combination of public funding, an available population of students and lax oversight… For EdisonLearning, the move to dropout recovery schools signaled a remarkable downshift in ambition. When launching the Edison Project 25 years before, media executive Chris Whittle and former Yale University President Benno Schmidt held out privatization as a fix for urban schools’ ills…. At its height, Edison managed dozens of schools in cities across the country, including Philadelphia and Baltimore. Whittle and Schmidt left their administrative roles in December 2006. Money troubles and controversies over test scores, staffing and safety forced the company to scale back… By 2013, the Bridgescape program had expanded to 17 schools in six states.”  Eventually Magic Johnson severed his ties with the schools: “In the summer of 2016, EdisonLearning ended its partnership with Magic Johnson and removed his name from schools’ signs… EdisonLearning—which sold off a chunk of its business in 2013—posted a significant loss in the 2016 fiscal year and has closed Bridgscapes in Illinois, Ohio and Virginia. But it is still bullish on dropout education.”

Capital High School, the dropout recovery school featured by Vogell, occupies a storefront in Columbus, Ohio, and although its student attendance ought to be able to be documented more easily than at an online school like ECOT, confirming students’ attendance has been a huge problem for the state of Ohio which pays the tuition: “Last school year, Ohio’s cash-strapped education department paid Capital High $1.4 million in taxpayer dollars to teach students on the verge of dropping out. But on a Thursday in May, students’ workstations in the storefront charter school… resembled place settings for a dinner party where most guests never arrived. In one room, empty chairs faced 25 blank computer monitors. Just three students sat in a science lab down the hall, and nine more in an unlit classroom, including one youth who sprawled out, head down, sleeping.  Only three of the more than 170 students on Capital’s rolls attended class the required five hours that day, records obtained by ProPublica show. Almost two-thirds of the school’s students never showed up; others left early.  Nearly a third of the roster failed to attend class all week. Some stay away even longer.  ProPublica reviewed 38 days of Capital High’s records from late March to late May and found six students skipped 22 or more days with no excused absences… Though the school is largely funded on a per-student basis, the no-shows didn’t hurt the school’s revenue stream. Capital billed and received payment from the state for teaching the equivalent of 171 students full time in May.”

Vogell describes aggressive efforts to recruit students. Some states provide an incentive for high school counselors to recommend that students move to a dropout recovery school: the students no longer count against the public high schools’ graduation rate if the students drop out into an alternative “dropout recovery” school. In other cases recruiters from the for-profit dropout recovery schools take coffee and donuts to meetings with high school counselors from whom they seek referrals. Vogell describes one Midwestern city where the dropout recovery schools engaged church pastors to help with recruitment. Vogell interviewed students’ probation officers who complained that dropout recovery programs with little structure are not helpful to the students they monitor.

This blog has been tracking the scandal at Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.  Now suddenly in a new development, ECOT will become a new chapter in the story Vogell exposes: Ohio has now initially approved ECOT’s changing its designation to a “dropout recovery school.”

To review: ECOT’s best known problem is that the state has accused it of theft of tax dollars for students the school claims but who are not regularly participating.  We’ll see if the Ohio Supreme Court will uphold a lower court’s demand that ECOT return enormous overpayments, money ECOT has already turned over to the two privately held, for-profit companies that provide curriculum and management services. ECOT’s founder, William Lager, owns both companies and has been collecting sizeable profits which he has shared with Ohio legislators as political campaign contributions. ECOT sued to prevent the state’s clawing back $60 million overpaid to ECOT during the 2015-16 school year, when ECOT charged the state for educating 15,300 students. The state has been able to document only 6,300 students in school at ECOT that school year. Now the state is demanding that ECOT repay $19 million for the 2016-2017 school year.  Although ECOT claimed 14,200 students last school year, the state can document only 11,600.

In the newest development, ECOT has now been initially approved by the Ohio Department of Education as a dropout recovery school.  For years ECOT has been earning an F rating from the state for its students’ test scores and deplorable graduation rate—an F rating which, under a 2015 law, now threatens the survival of its nonprofit sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West. In late September, the Ohio Department of Education agreed to accommodate ECOT’s request that it be declared a “dropout recovery school” instead of a regular online school.  The new designation will automatically change the school’s overall grade from F to C without any added responsibility for ECOT to better serve its students. Ohio, we learn, has lower expectations for the students at dropout recovery schools and will change the school’s overall score, even if the students’ academic performance and graduation rate remain deplorable. All ECOT has to do is prove that the majority of its students are between the ages of 16 and 21 and are in need of special services for students at-risk. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell adds: “The Ohio Department of Education…. does not audit that claim and leaves it to schools and their oversight organizations known as ‘sponsors’ to make that determination.”