Ohio State Senator Joe Schiavoni ought to be a hero to public school teachers and parents—and to citizens who support responsible stewardship of tax dollars. Except that thanks to the power of the Republican leadership in the Ohio legislature, few people are really aware of Schiavoni’s heroic effort to put a stop to Bill Lager’s massive scam—the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.
Schiavoni is a Democrat and his bill to regulate online charter schools has been pushed aside for over a year now. As Schiavoni explained in testimony last February, “Senate Bill 39 is the updated version of Senate Bill 298 from the last General Assembly.” In March of 2016, Schiavoni first introduced a version of this bill—designed to reign in Bill Lager’s giant scam. ECOT was (and still is) charging the state, which pays charter schools on a per pupil basis, for students who have enrolled at ECOT but are not regularly logging onto their computers to participate in the educational program.
Here is how Schiavoni described the bill (then Senate Bill 298) at that time: “We need to make sure that online schools are accurately reporting attendance and not collecting tax dollars for students who never log in to take classes. Online schools must be held accountable for lax attendance policies. Without strong oversight, these schools could be collecting millions of dollars while failing to educate Ohio’s school children.” Schiavoni’s bill required e-schools to keep accurate records of the number of hours student spend doing coursework. It required online schools to notify the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) if a student failed to log-in for ten consecutive days. It required that a qualified teacher check in with each student once a month to monitor active participation. In the last legislative session, the bill was never fully debated and never brought to the Senate floor for a vote.
Schiavoni re-introduced the bill in February, and this afternoon at 3:15, Peggy Lehner, the chair of the Senate Education Committee, is finally holding a hearing on Schiavoni’s bill. When he testified in February about the bill he was introducing, Schiavoni explained why it is needed: “Other than the requirement that e-schools provide no less than 920 hours per year of learning opportunities, there are no specific statewide standards related to the number of hours per day or week that e-school students must be engaged in learning. In an environment where a teacher is not physically able to see students in a classroom, this lack of accountability is very concerning.”
Schiavoni believes Senate Bill 39 will address the outrageous problems at Ohio’s on-line charter schools: “Senate Bill 39 requires each e-school to keep an accurate record of how long each individual student is actively participating in learning in every 24-hour period. This information must be reported to ODE on a monthly basis, and ODE would be required to make this report available on their website. Senate Bill 39 would also require a teacher who is licensed by the Ohio Department of Education to certify the accuracy of student participation logs… on a monthly basis.”
Senate Bill 39 has some new provisions that were not in the original SB 298. To protect local school districts, Schiavoni has added “a provision specifying that when the Auditor issues a Finding for Recovery from an audit of a… (charter) school, that money is returned to the school district.” Serious questions have been raised about the $60 million clawback the Ohio Department of Education is currently trying to institute against ECOT, because ECOT has been robbing not only the state, but also local school districts. Because of the way Ohio school finance works, a significant amount of the money redirected to charter schools comes out of the budget of the school district where each student resides.
As the ECOT scam has dragged on and mushroomed, the need for improved oversight by the state has become increasingly apparent as the press has exposed how millions of tax dollars are being diverted not only to Bill Lager but also to Lager’s privately owned, for-profit companies that manage the school and provide its curriculum. We have also learned that sponsoring agencies are collecting very significant fees without providing any real oversight.
Schiavoni describes provisions in Senate Bill 39 to address these concerns:
- “In the event that a student’s academic performance declines, the student’s parent/guardian, teachers, and principal must evaluate the student’s continued enrollment in the school;
- “Requires e-school sponsors to report a school’s failure to comply with online learning standards to ODE;
- “Requires e-schools to report their student mobility rate on their report cards…
- “Creates a bipartisan ‘E-school Funding Commission’ to study what the actual costs are to run an e-school.”
Schiavoni describes why passage of his bill is so important: “While this bill focuses on strengthening the oversight of attendance policies and the accurate accounting of tax dollars, it’s also about ensuring our children receive a quality education. Unfortunately, the evidence is growing that some online schools are failing too many of our children.”
In the meantime, the Ohio Supreme Court has agreed to hear ECOT’s case against the state. Also, Dave Yost, Ohio’s auditor has begun escrowing a portion of ECOT’s state funding for the 2017-2018 school year to ensure that, if the court finds against the school for over-reporting its enrollment and if the school should declare bankruptcy as a result, the state could recapture at least some of the money Lager has stolen.
Bill Lager has kept ECOT open and kept on collecting public funding, much of it for phantom students—by looking for and continuing to find loopholes in Ohio’s notoriously weak charter school regulations. For example, on Monday, the Ohio Department of Education granted ECOT initial approval to switch its designation and become a Dropout Recovery School. ECOT, which has been chronically awarded F ratings by the state for its students’ deplorable graduation rate and test scores, will have its F rating automatically turned into a C, without any change in its academic performance because the state will understand the school to be educating students with greater educational challenges. Its new rating as a Dropout Recovery School will save the life of its sponsor, the Education Service Center of Lake Erie West, whose existence has been threatened due to ECOT’s deplorable record. This blog has covered the ECOT scandal here.
It is time for the legislature to begin seriously cracking down. A good start would be for the Legislature to pass Joe Schiavoni’s sensible law to protect our children and our tax dollars by requiring that e-schools accurately report the number of students they enroll.