School's Out

Data suggests Internet-based education isn't living up to the hype


echnological advancements are intrinsically connected to the future of education. While most schools work to include technology in the classroom, many prominent figures are looking into ways to improve education systems by removing the classroom via technology. 

During the past year, many of these figures — people like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — have been trying to push more students into e-schools, schools that that can be attended by anyone from a computer at home. Some Ohio districts have followed suit, and enrollment in e-schools has steadily grown since 2005. Even Cincinnati Public Schools opened its own e-school for the 2011-2012 school year.

But Internet-based education might not be matching up to the hype. On July 12, the FBI, IRS and U.S. Department of Education raided the offices of the largest e-school in Pennsylvania. Seven days earlier, a Pennsylvania e-school surrendered its charter after the state filed a lawsuit. Last year, two nonpartisan organizations — Innovation Ohio and Education Sector — each launched their own investigations into e-schools, and the findings were fairly negative. 

Now education experts are speaking out against Ohio’s e-schools. Diane Ravitch, an education historian working at New York University and the Brookings Institute, is one such critic.

“The for-profit e-schools are a sham and a fraud against children,” Ravitch wrote in an email to CityBeat. “They don’t provide a good education and they rip off taxpayers. The only reason they exist is because of campaign contributions to politicians.”

Ravitch’s claim is supported by a 2011 report by Innovation Ohio on Ohio’s biggest e-schools, which concluded fundraising, not good academic results, is keeping e-schools alive.

The report used the examples of David Brennan and William Lager. Brennan operates the Alternative Education Academy in Toledo, and Lager runs Columbus’ Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), the largest e-school in Ohio. Between 2001 and 2010, Ohio Republicans received nearly $4 million in campaign contributions from Brennan and Lager, according to the report. In 2009 and 2010 alone, Brennan donated more than $412,000 to Republicans and $9,420 to Democrats. During the same time period, Lager donated $129,488 to Republicans and $62,000 to Democrats.

The Innovation Ohio report took a close look at the seven for-profit statewide e-schools in Ohio, which host 90 percent of students that attend e-schools. The other 10 percent is made up of localized e-schools.

The report blasted the schools for poor results and over-funding. The schools were found to all have graduation rates below the state median, and each of the schools was at least 14 points below the average statewide Performance Index, a weighted score given to every public school based on testing standards. 

CityBeat analyzed data provided by the Ohio Department of Education to verify the report’s findings. The data confirms the report’s findings and more. When looking at the longitudinal graduation rate for the 2009-2010 school year, which measures the graduation rate among students that have attended schools for at least four years, e-schools do even worse. None of the e-schools investigated by Innovation Ohio had longitudinal graduation rates above 35 percent. Cincinnati’s Ohio Connections Academy had the sharpest contrast with an 85.9 percent overall graduation rate and a 33.7 percent longitudinal graduation rate.

The implication for education experts like Ravitch is that the longer a student stays at an e-school, the lower the chances of graduation. A transfer student might have an 85.9 percent chance to graduate at the Ohio Connections Academy, but that chance drops to 33.7 percent for students that have been attending for at least four years.

Even worse, all of the schools were below Ohio’s average Performance Index of 95.0 during the 2010-2011 school year. The closest was Ohio Connections Academy at 91.8, and the furthest was Treca Digital Academy at 77.3.

E-schools also do not fare well under Gov. John Kasich’s education reform plan, which was signed into law June 26. Looking at 2010-2011 school year data, an Ohio Department of Education simulation revealed that all statewide e-schools reviewed by Innovation Ohio would have been given F’s under the proposed overall grading system.

Despite the poor academic results, the Innovation Ohio report found that e-schools still get huge amounts of funding. E-schools do not have costs related to heating, cooling, busing or meals, but they still get $6,320 per pupil on average — more than what 95 percent of traditional public schools in Ohio received through the state’s foundation formula, according to the report. 

The report also found the money is not well spent: Unlike traditional public schools, which spend about 75 percent of state money on teacher salaries, e-schools only spend 15 percent on average. The result is a 41:1 ratio at Ohio Connections Academy, while traditional schools like Lorain keep a 17:1 ratio.

Ravitch says e-schools are only a good alternative to traditional schools for a “very small number of children,” but she says the situation with Ohio’s e-schools is particularly bad. She claims Ohio e-school owners “make millions supplying bad education,” and the main motive for providing e-schools is profit.

Ravitch said that traditional schools still provide an important social function.

“The vast majority of children need to learn social skills,” she said. “They learn best with eye-to-eye, face contact with a living teacher and with the interchange with real classmates.”

Nick Wilson agrees e-schools aren’t the right choice for everyone. He is the spokesperson for ECOT.

“For some students who need the flexibility of attending classes online, we can help,” Wilson says. “But it’s not the right fit for everyone.”

But that’s where the agreement stops. For Wilson, the poor academic results are not the fault of e-schools. Instead, he attributes the poor academic results to the way the state government calculates graduation rates and other data. Wilson says many students attending ECOT start out a few years behind. Due to how the state calculates graduation rates, students that are so behind can weigh down the rate when they don’t graduate in what should be their senior year.

Wilson says he is more interested in looking at how students and the school grow and improve every year, not snapshots of data.

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