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.

Ohio’s “Dropout Recovery” Charters Increase State’s Dropout Rate, Swallow Tax Dollars

Doug Livingston, the education writer for the Akron Beacon Journal and Ohio’s top education journalist, recently reported on the financial scam at Ohio’s so-called “dropout recovery” charter schools. These are the on-line charters that say they are serving Ohio’s most vulnerable adolescents while in reality they are, according to Livingston, making enormous profits while driving up Ohio’s dropout rate at the same time other states are significantly increasing the rate of high school completion.

It is, of course, true that these schools cater to students in danger of dropping out, but because of the way the state reimburses such schools, there is massive profit to be made. In  the first of his new series of articles Livingston explains that two-thirds of Ohio’s dropouts are from charter schools, the vast majority on-line academies that require students to sit in a cubicle with a computer for four hours a day.

In a table that accompanies his recent investigation, Livingston lists a dozen dropout-recovery charter schools with a graduation rate below 4 percent, two of them posting a 4-year graduation rate of zero percent. Seven of these schools are part of the Life Skills Academy network owned by politically connected David Brennan as part of his White Hat chain.  In a second piece, Livingston reports: “For 15 years, White Hat and its programs for high school dropouts have cornered an education market saturated with struggling students who often bounce from school to school. White Hat’s model—what founder and owner David Brennan held up as the alternative to government schools’ failing ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach—has spread to every major city in Ohio.”

“Absenteeism tops the reasons why students drop out; charter schools continue to collect tax dollars for more than a month while they are gone.” “Administrators call it churning’ or ‘school hopping’—when student drop out, disappear for months and then return.” “The state counts a dropout as an event, not as a person. If one student drops out three times in one year, that is three dropouts. It happens, a lot.” The state requires that students who are absent or truant for more than 23 days be taken off school rolls, but during that 23 days, the state reimburses the school. Livingston explains: “There were more than 11,000 removals for truancy last year, meaning taxpayers paid for perhaps 253,000 days of no student instruction, or the equivalent of 1,400 empty desks for an entire school year.”

Besides Brennan’s White Hat charter chain, there are two other primary players in Ohio’s cyber charter sector: The Ohio Virtual Academy, a K12 affiliate, and the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) operated by William Lager, who has made a profit of over $100 million since 2001 from the two privately held companies he owns that provide all services to ECOT. The Ohio Virtual Academy and ECOT do not market themselves exclusively as dropout recovery schools.

Livingston reports: “In the 2012-2013 school year, more than 5,300 dropouts—a quarter of all Ohio dropouts that year—attended one of two online charter schools: the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow or Ohio Virtual Academy. Collectively, these two charter schools have a dropout rate 45 times higher than traditional public schools, and 10 times higher than the state’s eight largest city school districts. Another 6,829 students—about a third of all Ohio dropouts—attended charter schools designed specifically for dropouts…. Last year, these dropout charter schools enrolled one percent of Ohio’s public school students but accounted for roughly the same number of dropout events as did public district schools, which enrolled 91 percent of Ohio’s students.”