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The Debate Surrounding ECOT Attendance Audit Heats Up

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  The heated dispute between the state and its largest online charter school reached a boiling point this week with a judge’s order for ECOT to turn over its student log-in data. The e-school is refusing to back down.

More than two dozen staffers are working to gather the log-in information of ECOT’s students to hand over to the Ohio Department of Education. The department says it needs that data in order to fill in the gaps of its attendance audit, determining how much instruction a student received each day.

But ECOT consultant and longtime lobbyist Neil Clark says the online charter school’s lawsuit against ODE will go forward because Ohio law doesn’t require ECOT to hand over the information.

“The difference here between wanting because of legislation that’s out there and current revised code are entirely different. You can’t want something into law; it has to be in the law,” Clark said.

Part of Clark’s argument is that the log-in information does not tell the whole story since students don’t have to be on their computers in order to be learning or completing work. Democratic Sen. Joe Schiavoni of Boardman, a critic of charter schools, agrees but says the log-in data is supplemental.

“It’s reasonable stuff. How long is that kid engaged in learning? If they’re offline, then document, get it to a certified teacher and have that teacher send it to ODE,” he said.

Any public school brick and mortar could just open the door and say 'Hey look we've got books on the shelves ...'

Just what is "educational opportunities?"
Until now, ECOT has only used a teacher certification process where the teacher signs off on how much instruction a student received. But if you take a closer look at the form, it specifically says “provide educational opportunities.”

That phrase doesn’t sit well with Schiavoni.

“Providing an opportunity means any public school brick and mortar could just open the door and say ‘Hey look we’ve got books on the shelves, we’ve got some teachers around if you need them; all you gotta do is raise your hand and say, 'I’m here and you’re free to do whatever you want all day.’ Providing opportunity? We’ve got to talk about educating kids and teaching them while they’re in school, whether it’s on the computer or in a brick and mortar classroom.”

Clark doesn’t dispute the fact that the phrase “educational opportunities” is open ended because, again as he argues, that’s all that the law calls for.

“It’s not that we’re trying to avoid anything. ... Yyou want to talk about a new methodology the next calendar year of schoo,l we’re more than happy to do that. We’re not going to participate in a retroactive claim,” Clark said.

At stake here is $108 million, which is what the state allotted for ECOT’s funding in the last year. But to get that money this attendance audit must confirm that each of the e-school’s 15,000 students actually received an education. And ECOT officials have said, if the state continues its audit at what they believe to be higher standards, the school could shut down.

“After years of bullying and changing schools I could finally learn at my own pace. That’s why I can’t figure out why bureaucrats at the Ohio Department of Education are breaking their word and trying to close my school.”

A fight funded by tax dollars?
That’s a TV ad that started playing around Ohio in primetime to gather support for the school. ECOT also distributed a memo with a similar message to Ohio’s delegation during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Schiavoni says ECOT is exhausting its legal remedies rather than addressing the real issues.

“So what they’ve decided instead of turning over this basic information, they’ve decided to hire lawyers and file lawsuits, they’ve decided to hire lobbyists to act on their behalf and they’ve put out thousands and thousands of dollars worth of advertisements rather than dealing with curriculum, rather than making sure that they get up to speed for this year’s school year,” Schiavoni said.

Schiavoni adds that turning over the log-in information should not be damaging enough to close the school down. In response Clark insists that ECOT will stand its ground.

“Turning over the information is not the issue. The issue is the Department of education insists in doing it their way and there is no reference to the revised code that dictates that. You guys write the law, we’ll follow the law. ODE can’t change it on their own whim."

The lawsuit ECOT filed against the ODE is scheduled for trial next year.

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.