ECOT's Lawsuit Against ODE Audit Over Student Logins Raises Questions About State Laws On Charters

Jul 12, 2016

The Ohio Department of Education has started its audit of student attendance at the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, after a judge denied ECOT’s request to stop that audit yesterday. But questions about the laws that govern charter schools have supporters and opponents once again calling for changes.

The Ohio Department of Education’s audit seeks to determine if the nearly 15,000 students that ECOT claims are enrolled are getting the 920 hours of learning for which the state is paying ECOT more than $100 million dollars a year. ECOT had claimed that if the audit went forward, the school might have to close because of a significant loss of funding – and ECOT says that could happen because ODE is changing the rules that under which it is audited. A specific concern is about proof that students logged in for five hours a day, which ECOT says ODE agreed not to require in its 2003 contract with the e-school. Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni (D-Boardman) is a critic of charter schools in general, and ECOT in particular. “I think that they’re desperate, and I think that they realize that they’ve been playing by their own set of rules that were very advantageous to them financially,” Schiavoni said.

ODE said in its response to ECOT’s lawsuit that the e-school is required to document students’ login and participation, and said an early review of ECOT’s records found most students logged on for only an hour a day – not five. While the judge’s order allows the ODE audit to go forward, ECOT says it’s still pursuing its lawsuit, in which it says the five hour per day login requirement for online charter school students is not in state law. And indeed, the laws on charter schools have changed a lot since the first one in 1998, and sometimes can be vague. Schiavoni said the ODE’s push to audit ECOT, Auditor Dave Yost’s pop-up attendance audits of charters and a recent tightening of sponsorship and documentation laws have helped.  “But we have not brought our laws up to a place where we actually have that transparency and accountability in every single schools that many legislators talk about," Schiavoni said. "So I hope we can get there in the next legislative session, but the fact that ODE has taken this step is really important.”

But there are changes that other lawmakers would like to make – especially those who support charter schools. Republican Rep. Andrew Brenner (R-Powell) is the chair of the House Education Committee.  “Well, I’ve been pushing and advocating for a change in the way all schools are funding. I ultimately think that the money following the student is the best route to go," Brenner said.

And Brenner also likes the suggestion of moving to a performance based metric on which to measure schools and districts. “I know we’re looking to do that or we’re doing that with our dropout recovery schools, and plus we’ve expanded it as well to our universities. So if the universities can do it, maybe we should start considering along those lines with our public high schools," Brenner said. "That would include the virtual schools as well as the charter schools and possibly even our urban schools that have had struggles in the past.”

Of those ideas, Schiavoni said he’s concerned about money raised with local school levies following students to charter schools, and that he’s not outright opposed to a performance based metric for e-schools, but he would want to see the final details of such a proposal. There are at least two bills on charter schools waiting for lawmakers to look over when they return after the general election this fall.