Ohio’s battle with the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow illustrates larger concerns over the state’s online charter schools

Officials say the ECOT must prove it is providing at least 920 hours of learning opportunities a year or risk losing millions in state funding.

Aug 10, 2016 at 10:15 am
Fights over attendance data at Ohio’s largest online school could endanger its state funding. - Photo: Thinkstock
Photo: Thinkstock
Fights over attendance data at Ohio’s largest online school could endanger its state funding.

Ohio taxpayers have been paying $100 million a year to send 15,000 students to a school that has no books, no classrooms and, according to recent state efforts to get to the bottom of its attendance records, little proof that it is providing educational opportunities required by the state.

Critics, including state lawmakers, say the continuing battle between the Ohio Department of Education and privately run but publicly funded online charter school Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) underscores problems with the state’s lax oversight of its charter system, especially embattled online schools. Officials say ECOT must prove it is providing at least 920 hours of learning opportunities a year or risk losing millions in state funding. 

But the school’s leadership says it is providing an invaluable service for students who can’t attend a brick and mortar school and that a 2003 contract between ECOT and the state stipulates that it cannot be held accountable for its actual attendance rates. Officials say if the state holds it to those standards and strips some of its funding, it may have to close.

“ECOT’s failure to educate its students and continued wasting of tax dollars cannot go on any longer,” Ohio Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni, D-Boardman, said in statement after a judge’s order to ECOT directing the school to turn over attendance records. 

But the school says its contract with the state doesn’t stipulate that students log in the full five hours a day the state requires, only that the school provides that many hours of educational opportunities. 

State officials have asked for proof that ECOT students are spending significant time learning offline — documentation that the school says does not exist. 

The fate of the online charter school may rest in the 50 boxes of student log-in and log-out records, more than 25,000 pages in all, it delivered to ODE Aug. 3 and 4 under orders from Franklin County Common Pleas Court. 

ECOT tried to block the agency’s oversight efforts with a lawsuit there in July and continues to press on with an amended suit that seeks to block the state from holding the school to the attendance standards. 

ECOT and two parents of students at the school have filed and updated a lawsuit to keep the state “from purposefully discriminating against them.” That suit, which will go to court sometime next year, calls ODE’s audit and its attendance standards an “illogical, arbitrary and irrational attempt to deprive them of their right to school choice.”

The school has also re-upped a request for state correspondence about the ODE audit, which it originally filed last month. Lawyers for the school accused the ODE of “dragging its feet” on delivering those records in a letter they sent to state officials Aug. 4.

ECOT has been locked in a bitter fight with the Ohio Department of Education since March, when a preliminary attendance audit by State Auditor David Yost’s office showed that students spent just one-fifth of the time they should spend on the school’s site.  

Outside groups have recently joined the fray. The Ohio Coalition for Quality Education, a pro-charter lobbying group, wrote a letter to Ohio delegates at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last month tying the ODE’s effort to gain attendance records to Democrats. 

“In the Ohio Department of Education — the last bastion of Democrat, pro-union thinking in state government — Democrats are trying to eliminate a core principle of Republican philosophy: school choice,” the letter read.

Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger spoke at a June graduation event for ECOT students. When Rosenberger was asked by online education news site StateImpact Ohio about the school’s audit while he was at the RNC, the Republican said lawmakers need to look at “the whole situation,” including other online charter schools that have attendance issues. 

School founder and Columbus businessman William Lager has been heavily involved in funding political campaigns, most of them Republican. Last year, he gave $10,000 to the Ohio Republican Party, and in the past five years he has given more than $1 million to Republican lawmakers. 

ECOT’s efforts to plead their case go beyond lawmakers. The school has aired ads asking the ODE to “Keep your word. Keep ECOT open.” Those and other ad buys advertising ECOT, which feature students talking about the ways the online school has helped them, have cost about $280,000 of taxpayer money. 

“What will happen to kids like me who depended on ECOT?” asks Rajah Morales, who the commercial says is a former student at the school. 

The fight over ECOT’s attendance comes as larger questions about Ohio’s online charter schools continue to heat up. Concerns first came to wide public attention last year, when then-ODE School Choice Director David Hansen resigned after it was revealed that he had omitted low-performing online charter school data from major charter school evaluation reports. Hansen is married to Beth Hansen, who was Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s chief of staff before running his presidential campaign. 

Many of the schools omitted were sponsored by a nonprofit called Ohio Council of Community Schools. That organization was paid $1.5 million last year by the state to oversee Ohio Virtual Academy and OHDELA, an online school run by big charter school company White Hat Management. The latter company is owned by high-level GOP donor David Brennan, who helped push for the original charter schools established in Ohio in the late 1990s. 

Akron-based White Hat is a for-profit company that operates 49 schools in six states. It has 15 in Ohio, including Cin-cinnati’s Riverside Academy. Riverside, like many White Hat schools, has historically under-performed compared to public schools.

Brennan has said that his schools have low performance because they’re working with low-income students who face many challenges. But in 2010, the boards of 10 schools that White Hat operated in Cleveland and Akron sued the company. They alleged that in order to turn a profit the company was shortchanging the schools on public money it collected. It took three years for courts to order White Hat to show financial records. 

Meanwhile, a study commissioned by the Thomas Fordham B. Institute and released earlier this month suggests that the state’s 24 online schools like those run by White Hat and ECOT aren’t providing their 35,000 students with a satisfactory education. While the institute generally supports charters, it found online schools in Ohio lacking.

“Online students are not achieving at the same level as their peers in brick-and-mortar schools,” the report said, noting that the online schools are dragging down the ratings of other charters. Online charter advocates have shrugged off the report, saying that students who enroll in such schools often start out at a lower performance level. ©