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Ohio Lawmakers Consider Reforms for Online Charter Schools

photo of Keith Faber and Joe Schiavoni

The Ohio Senate seemed to be poised to move forward on a bill that would crack down on online schools with bad attendance records. But a political maneuver may slow it down. 

The state hands out funding to online charter schools, or e-schools, based on how many students are taking courses. Recent reports have revealed that several e-schools have turned in bad attendance records, essentially overbilling the state for students who didn’t actually show up for class.

A serious problem
Republican Sen. Peggy Lehner of Kettering says this is a serious problem that goes beyond wasteful spending.

“We hear it all the time from schools that say their children leave brick and mortar schools, they go to an online school and come back a year or two later and haven’t made any academic progress at all. And I think it’s very important that we look at and make sure that isn’t happening.”

As chair of the Senate Education Committee, Lehner expressed interest in tackling the issue by considering a bill introduced by Democratic Sen. Joe Schiavoni of the Youngstown area that would implement strict attendance requirements.

"It's not coincidental that this happened twice in a row to two education bills that I was a sponsor of."

But Republican Senate President Keith Faber of Celina had some people scratching their heads when he did not assign the bill to Lehner’s Education Committee and put it in the Finance Committee instead.

A political move?
“I’m confused because it is an education policy bill,” says Schiavoni, the leader of the Senate Democrats. He says this kind of maneuver has happened in the past when Lehner showed interest in another one of his bills.

“She was supportive of this idea or said that there was some room to work and all of the sudden it gets moved to finance. It’s not coincidental that this happened twice in a row to two education bills that I was a sponsor of.”

Lehner was reserved when asked about the move.

“Well that’s the president’s prerogative to put it where he wants to put it, so I suggest you talk to him.”

Asked whether she thought it should be in her committee, Lehner replied  “I repeat that’s the president’s prerogative and I suggest you talk to him.”

Faber says he put the bill in finance because it deals with funding.

“Attendance is one of the ways we reimburse school districts. And certainly one of the ways we count students whether they’re there or not. Since we pay on students, it’s appropriate to go to the Finance Committee.

ECOT's political power?
The assumption is that Faber moved it to a committee that would be less welcoming of a bill that would strengthen regulations against e-schools. ECOT is the biggest e-school in the state and is run by a major Republican campaign contributor. But Faber defends his decision and says it’s simply just because of the content of the bill.

“We make decisions on where bills go every day and frankly education funding issues usually go to finance committee.”

Schivaoni's bill
Schiavoni’s bill would create stronger record-keeping guidelines that would be monitored by the Ohio Department of Education on a monthly basis. The bill also requires e-schools to hold school board meetings, report any failure to comply with education standards and to include state report card grades in their commercials and ads.

Schiavoni says these are important proposals that could use the expertise of the education committee.

Lehner says there are more variables to take into account when tracking an online student’s attendance because of the ability to log in and out and how much time they might spend on a project.

“So we need to take that into account when we look at attendance on an e-school. There are definitely challenges that are connected with keeping attendance and knowing what’s going on with an individual student but we need to do it.”

Schiavoni says Gov. John Kasich expressed support for taking a closer look at the issue while he was in Ohio for his State of the State address.

No word yet on when hearings will begin for the bill.

Andy Chow is a general assignment state government reporter who focuses on environmental, energy, agriculture, and education-related issues. He started his journalism career as an associate producer with ABC 6/FOX 28 in Columbus before becoming a producer with WBNS 10TV.