Notorious Ohio Online Charters Try to Evade Oversight, Tarnish Reputation of Charter Sector

Patrick O’Donnell, of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, reports that, “Poor test results at online schools are creating divisions in the charter school community in Ohio and nationally, leading some national leaders to question whether e-schools should even be part of the charter school movement.”

He adds that, “In Ohio three statewide e-schools, each run by for-profit companies, dominate the market with 30,000 students between them.  Combined, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), Ohio Connections Academy and Ohio Virtual Academy account for 76 percent of all online students in the state.”  The Ohio Virtual Academy is operated by K12 Inc., and Ohio Connections Academy is reported by O’Donnell to be owned by Pearson. ECOT, the largest, is operated by Columbus entrepreneur, William Lager.

Last month a group of think tanks released a three-part report on the problems in the massive online charter schools. Mathematica Policy Research described how the nation’s 200 online charter schools operate; the Center on Reinventing Public Education explored the policy concerns around regulation, accountability, and funding provisions; and Stanford CREDO examined academic results of the e-schools and compared them to the academic records of traditional public and charter schools in which children come to a school and are taught by live, on-site teachers.  O’Donnell describes the conclusions of CREDO’s study: “Researchers found that students in online schools learn far less than students in other schools.  Nationally, students learned the equivalent of 72 days of school less in reading and 180 days less in math, each school year…. For Ohio, online students learned 79 days less material in reading than peers in traditional schools and 144 less days in math.”  This blog covered the series of reports on e-schools here.

O’Donnell reports that the online schools complain that they are being condemned for serving a very different type of student.  They say they educate many students who have failed to succeed in any other setting and then try online schooling only as a last resort.  The schools complain that with such an at-risk population, they should be held to a lower standard than other schools.  Nina Rees, director of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, disagrees.  In an interview, Rees told O’Donnell, “I don’t know if these online schools are the right fit in the charter model.”  She suggested that, unlike charter schools which are required in most places not to impose overt selection screens, online schools ought to be able to select students with motivated parents who will oversee the online instruction to ensure that students do the work.

CREDO’s research has been widely criticized by the operators of the online charter schools, but Lynn Woodworth, a researcher at CREDO defends the conclusions of the research: “If  online charter schools are serving a population so different from other students, then the online charter schools should document: 1. how their students are so radically different, and 2. what they are doing to meet the challenges of those special needs.  Right now the data show the academic growth of students attending online charter schools is not up to the growth of students in brick-and-mortar settings, traditional or charter.”

Meanwhile in Ohio, Neil Clark—ECOT’s lobbyist, who is described by Doug Livingston of the Akron Beacon-Journal as “one of the most influential lobbyists in the state,” is said by Livingston to be exploring with members of Ohio’s House of Representatives attaching to an unrelated bill some language that would soften for Ohio’s online schools the very modest new regulations for charter schools that were finally passed by Ohio’s legislature last month.  The recently passed charter oversight bill curbs the most egregious violations by Ohio’s charter sector—obvious conflicts of interest for charter treasurers and board members, charter hopping, and contracts that leave publicly purchased assets of closed schools with the charter management company when a charter school is closed down—passed finally despite years’ of heavy investment in Republican campaign coffers by Ohio’s online charter czars.  The measure Clark is working with members of Ohio’s House to slip quietly into another piece of legislation would add a complex and poorly understood econometric charter grading plan that could be adapted from California to make it appear that Ohio’s online academies are better serving their students.  Surely before such an amendment is attached to legislation, it ought to be evaluated by technical experts equipped to make its operation for all charter and traditional public schools transparent.

In the meantime, O’Donnell reports that Peggy Lehner, Chair of the Ohio Senate Education Committee, is considering another provision, one that would penalize the online schools.  She says the Ohio Senate will consider changing the way online schools are reimbursed by the state.  Her proposal is that the state pay online schools not according to the number of students who are enrolled, but instead “based on how many credits students earn toward graduation.”  Because there are years’ of evidence that these schools have found ways to pad their enrollment figures to balloon the tax dollars they draw from the state, paying these schools for credits earned would be a very significant move toward better public stewardship.  Let’s hope Peggy Lehner is able to sustain the leadership she courageously provided earlier this year to put in place some regulation of what has been called Ohio’s notorious “wild, wild West” charter school sector.