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Ohio Supreme Court Decision Opens Door to Reducing Benefits, Rights of Online School Teachers

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Wednesday, May 29, 2013 at 2:30 PM

Valley Library (Oregon State University) / Flickr

Online school teachers are less like teachers and more like independent contractors who happen also to teach, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled earlier this month, denying an appeal from a group of Jefferson County Educational Service Center (ESC) online teachers.

The Supreme Court ruling opens the door for Ohio's growing stable of online schools to declare their employees independent contractors, said Ohio State University law professor Charlie Wilson.

"They're treating them like if the ESC hired them to replace their sidewalks," rather than teach, he said of the decision. Wilson is also president of the Ohio School Boards Association.

The ruling could allow the schools to save on the costs of pension contributions and other employee benefits such as family and medical leave, Wilson said. And it could leave some of Ohio's more than 1,000 online school teachers without access to benefits and rights that many teachers at traditional public schools take for granted.

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The court case dealt with three employees of an online school operated by the Jefferson County Educational Service Center.

The employees were paid $105 per online student per semester and could serve hundreds of students in a given year. For one employee, that added up to more than $66,324 over several years.

The employees set their own hours and often worked from home or from a public library.

(The employees also worked as in-person teachers for local school districts and received salaries and benefits for those jobs.)

The ESC decided to treat the three employees as teachers and withheld pension contributions, but the State Teachers Retirement System said they were independent contractors and refunded the pension contributions the ESC made on the employees' behalf.

The employees challenged the pension fund's decision and, not incidentally, sought to have the money they earned teaching school online factored into their pension payments.

Under the Supreme Court ruling, that won't happen.

In its ruling, the court said it recognized that online schools present a new way of teaching, but said the legal facts in the case didn't allow it to overrule the pension fund's decision:

We do not disagree that the [Virtual Learning Academy] and cyber schools present a new way of teaching. But it is precisely for those reasons that the STRS, with its expertise in this area, is entitled to deference. And, of course, the General Assembly, is entitled to change the definition of “teacher” in R.C. 3307.01(B)(5) to encompass [Virtual Learning Academy] instructors and other independent contractors who work in cyber schools. Those prerogatives, however, are not judicial ones.

The Supreme Court ruling may further widen the gap between union teachers at traditional public schools and the mostly non-union teachers at charter schools, Wilson said.

"In so many ways, teachers at charter schools and especially those at electronic schools are second-class employees," Wilson said.


STRS spokesperson Nick Treneff said the retirement system's opposition to considering the Jefferson County teachers as teachers instead of independent contractors was based on the particular circumstances of their case.

"We were in opposition to the plaintiffs in this case because of the specific nature of the plaintiffs' argument. But we are not trying to exclude online schools from membership in STRS-Ohio," he said.

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