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ECOT Fires Back at State Officials With State Attendance Audit Around the Corner

ECOT and Ohio Department of Education logos

Ohio’s largest online charter school is firing back against state officials who say they don’t have enough information to perform an attendance audit. The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, or ECOT, says it won’t hand over student log-in times unless a judge tells them to. 

The Ohio Department of Education says it still needs detailed information on when ECOT’s students logged-in and -out of school every day in order to get a clear idea of how much instruction time they received.

A judge already shot down ECOT’s request for an order to block ODE from conducting an attendance audit, which is done every five years and only looks at a single school year.

But ECOT spokesperson and long-time lobbyist Neil Clark says the online charter school system is following a contract signed in 2002 that spelled out the standards of an audit. According to Clark, the state is trying to break away from those standards.

“Our attorneys are in the room and they’ve made it very clear that any information that the department of education asks outside of our contract that they will need to file other paperwork with the court and make a request to the court that we submit the other data,” he said.

And Clark says the lawsuit against ODE over that contract continues.

The battle over ECOT’s attendance records started earlier this year. The Ohio Department of Education has tried several times to perform an audit to find out just how much instruction time each of its nearly 15,000 students is receiving on a daily, weekly and annual basis.

The requirements
A student must receive 920 hours of educational instruction a year - which translates to a minimum of five hours a day. 

But according to ODE’s court filing, a preliminary audit found that most of ECOT’s students were only getting about one hour of instruction a day.

Clark says that’s “outrageously false.”

“And I have no idea where the special counsel for the AG obtained that information that in our particular position is ludicrous but that will ultimately come out in further detailed audits so I have no idea how they acquired that information or where they got it from,” he said.

Why not just hand over the information?

Clark responds, "we have a contract. The contract specifically states what we’re supposed to do. Until the court tells us what to do we are going to follow the contract. So all the comments that can be made about how we should or what can we do to clear up the thing -- this is now in litigation so it requires a judge to tell us what to do -- not ODE – period,” Clark said.

What's at stake
ECOT received $108 million from the state last school year. If the preliminary attendance audit holds up, ECOT could lose tens of millions of dollars in repayment. 

In a letter to parents, ECOT’s superintendent implies that the department of education is trying to eliminate the online charter school. The letter added that ODE is changing the rules which could lead to ECOT closing its doors.

The department has declined a request to comment because of the pending litigation.

Next steps
Democrats in the General Assembly have introduced a bill that would strengthen attendance standards and require e-schools like ECOT to report their attendance numbers every month to the education department. 

The legal fight over the attendance records is expected to go back to court within the next couple of weeks.

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.