Ohio's Largest Online School Sues State

[photo: Michelle Faust/ ideastream]
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by Karen Kasler [This story was updated with more detailed information on 7/11/16]

The state’s largest and most controversial online charter school has sued to block the state from a delayed attendance audit that was supposed to start today, and could end up costing it millions of dollars.

The lawsuit seeks to stop the Department of Education from auditing the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, or ECOT – an audit that had been scheduled for February, then put off till mid-June, then set to start Monday. These audits are done every five years to determine if student enrollment matches the number of students for which the state pays the charter to educate – money that comes from traditional public schools. Longtime lobbyist Neil Clark is a consultant for ECOT, which he says since 2003 has had a contract with ODE on how audits will be done. He says ODE now wants to change that process, including checking that students log in for at least five hours a day, which he says isn’t spelled out in state law.

“They want to ignore the Revised Code and they want to ignore the existence of our contract, so we had no choice but to go to court and seek a temporary restraining order from having them apply these ridiculous standards.”

Clark says ECOT’s attorneys were in constant contact with ODE but that ODE didn’t answer their questions and concerns. And Clark says he’s aware that this may look like ECOT is trying to dodge an audit that could end up costing the school millions in state funding if the audit doesn’t find as many students are enrolled as ECOT has claimed.

“Don’t care about the criticisms of what people say. We have successfully passed audits in 2003, 2006, 2011 and ten other audits done by the Auditor of State under the principles of that contract. Now if they want to change that contract, they need to go inform us in a different way or go to the General Assembly.”

And Clark says the lawsuit will show there’s what he calls a pattern of concern that ODE has been looking at ECOT more carefully than other schools. ECOT has received a fair amount of negative attention – most recently, an article in the New York Times that noted ECOT’s graduation rate was under 39 percent, which is significantly lower than even the worst-performing traditional public schools. So both critics of charter schools and their supporters are waiting for the results of the ECOT audit. Chad Aldis with the pro-school choice group the Fordham Institute says an extensive audit is important.

“If you get into details with a school serving a large number of kids, I would expect it to take some time. I’m less worried about the time and more worried that whatever analysis is done is right, it’s helpful, it’s fair. So I’m willing to wait a little bit of time to make sure the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed.”

ECOT claims nearly 15,000 students are enrolled, which would make it larger than all but eight public school districts. ECOT could lose millions if the audit determined that fewer students are attending. The Ohio Department of Education hasn’t responded to ECOT’s lawsuit, but has said in a statement that the agency is committed to completing its regulatory duty to review attendance at all charter schools and ensure that all charter schools are getting appropriate funding. At least two schools have had to give back hundreds of thousands in state funds after fewer students were found than were claimed.

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