Audit Shows Most Students in Controversial E-School Spend Only 1 Hour Online a Day

[photo: Michelle Faust/ ideastream]
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by Karen Kasler

The Ohio Department of Education has started its audit of student attendance at the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, after a judge denied ECOT’s request to stop that audit yesterday. Questions about the laws that govern charter schools have both supporters and opponents once again calling for changes. 

ODE’s audit seeks to determine if ECOT’s nearly 15,000 students are getting the 920 hours of learning the state requires. At risk are more than $100 million dollars a year that the state pays ECOT to educate students for that amount of time. 

ECOT claims the audit jeopardizes its existence. The school might have to close because of a significant loss of funding – and ECOT says that could happen because ODE is changing the rules under which it is audited. A specific concern is about proof that students logged in for five hours a day, which ECOT says ODE agreed not to require in its 2003 contract with the e-school.

“I think that they’re desperate. And I think that they realize that they’ve been playing by their own set of rules that were very advantageous to them financially,” says Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni, a Youngstown Democrat and a critic of charter schools in general, and ECOT in particular.

In response to ECOT’s lawsuit, ODE says the school is required to document students’ login and participation. According to the department, an early review of ECOT’s records found most students logged on for only an hour a day – not five.

While the judge’s order allows the ODE audit to go forward, ECOT says it’s still pursuing its lawsuit. The online charter says the five hour per day login requirement for online charter school students is not in state law. And indeed, the laws on charter schools have changed a lot since the first one in 1998, and sometimes can be vague.

Schiavoni says ODE’s push to audit ECOT along with a recent tightening of sponsorship rules, documentation requirements, and Auditor Dave Yost’s pop-up attendance audits of charters all have helped. 

“But we have not brought our laws up to a place where we actually have that transparency and accountability in every single school that many legislators talk about. So I hope we can get there in the next legislative session, but the fact that ODE has taken this step is really important,” says Schiavoni.

But there are changes that other lawmakers would like to make – especially those who support charter schools. 

“Well, I’ve been pushing and advocating for a change in the way all schools are funded," says Republican Representative Andrew Brenner of Powell, chair of the House Education Committee.  "I, ultimately, think that the money following the student is the best route to go,” 

He also likes the idea of moving to a performance-based metric on which to measure schools and districts. 

“I know we’re looking to do that or we’re doing that with our dropout recovery schools. And plus, we’ve expanded it, as well, to our universities. So, if the universities can do it, maybe we should start considering along those lines with our public high schools. That would include the virtual schools, as well as the charter schools, and possibly even our urban schools that have had struggles in the past,” says Brenner.

Of those ideas, Schiavoni says he’s concerned about money raised with local school levies following students to charter schools. And it’s not that he’s outright opposed to a performance-based metrics for e-schools, but he would want to see the final details of such a proposal. 

There are at least two bills on charter schools waiting for lawmakers to look over when they return to Columbus after the general election this fall.

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