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Published in Print: December 5, 2001, as Ohio Audit Reveals Difficulties Of Tracking Online Students

Ohio Audit Reveals Difficulties Of Tracking Online Students

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Ohio's first online charter school—the Electronic Classroom Of Tomorrow, or eCOT—received $1.7 million in state payments for students who may not have met enrollment requirements in September and October of 2000, a recent state audit concludes.

The audit's findings, released last month, highlight a problem facing the growing number of cyber charter schools around the country: How are they to provide evidence that students are engaged in learning, when the students themselves aren't physically in a classroom? ("Cyber Schools Carving Out Charter Niche," Oct. 24, 2001.)

Critics of cyber charter schools were quick to point to the Ohio auditor's findings as evidence of serious problems with online charter schools.

"It's a major scandal that [state Auditor Jim] Petro has uncovered," said Tom Mooney, the president of the 20,000-member Ohio Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. "We're not saying virtual schools ... should not be explored, but clearly Ohio does not have a handle on how to monitor and regulate them to protect taxpayers and students."

But Jeffrey P. Forster, the superintendent of the eCOT school, which enrolls 2,957 students in kindergarten through grade 12, said the audit was misleading because the state never defined the requirements of enrollment until seven months after the school opened. Students take online classes and have the use of computer equipment and materials at no charge, with the cost paid by the state, under its community, or charter, school law, passed in 1997.

For September and October of last year, Mr. Forster said, many students were waiting for computers that the school was setting up and sending to them, as well as for the installation of telephone lines for modem connections ordered by the school. In the meantime, the students were sent course materials, which they were completing while in contact by phone with their assigned teachers, Mr. Forster said.

As it is, the Ohio education department, eCOT, the state auditor, and the Lucas County Educational Service Center, which is the school's sponsor under the state's charter school law, will discuss the rules for enrollment and whether eCOT must repay money to the state, "or whether the state owes money to the school," said J.C. Benton, a department spokesman.

"There's no wrongdoing," Mr. Benton said. "This issue basically is regarding the monitoring of students in the virtual schools."

In a letter to the state auditor in March, state education officials suggested that the effective enrollment date be the date that a student first logs on to the school's network.

But Mr. Forster said he found it ironic that such a system would write off learning activities that occur away from computers. "If a child reads a book, you only count time on the computer—we think that's ridiculous," Mr. Forster said. "We believe it should be based on when we start providing [the child] the service."

In fact, he said, insistence on rigid monitoring by computer risks making online education untenable. "If they make electronic schools only get credit for kids' time that they could measure by computer," he argued, "they'll destroy all of the electronic schools because we can't measure it."

He suggests that evaluation by teachers could be part of the monitoring system.

Mr. Forster said his understanding was that the eCOT school would not have to repay any money to the state.

The auditor's report suggests that any repayments be spread out so the school's operations would not be damaged.

Mr. Benton said he believed the problem would be solved.

"We're working with the auditor as well as eCOT ... to develop strict guidelines, which we hope to put in place by the end of the calendar year," he said.

Array of Opponents

The Ohio Federation of Teachers and some other prominent education groups in the state oppose charter schools, including eCOT and the state's other online charter school, the 800-student Treca Digital Academy. The Treca school opened in September under the sponsorship of the Tri-Rivers Educational Computer Association of Marion, Ohio.

The teachers' union is part of a coalition of education groups that in March sued the state over what the coalition contends is Ohio's failure to enforce its statutes regarding charter schools.

Moreover, argue the groups—including the Ohio PTA, several school districts, and the state school boards' association—the charter school program is unconstitutional, because it does not meet the Ohio Constitution's requirement of being "a thorough and efficient system of common schools."

The Lucas County Educational Service Center, which granted the charter to eCOT, is also named as a defendant. The suit challenges an arrangement by which a for-profit company, Altair Learning, receives a cut of eCOT's state aid in return for managing contracts for technology and curriculum and the secure network, called an "intranet," through which students from around the state take classes.

The Columbus, Ohio, company is to receive 10 percent of the state funding that goes to the school, Mr. Forster said. So far, he said, the company has received 3 percent of that state funding.

Vol. 21, Issue 14, Page 14

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