Student Login Records at Ohio E-Schools Spark $80 Million Dispute
The Ohio education department could seek repayment of more than $80 million from nine full-time online schools, based on audits of software-login records that led state officials to determine the schools had overstated their student enrollment.
The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, for example, was paid for 15,322 full-time students during the 2015-16 school year. But state officials said they could document just 41 percent of that total.
An Education Week analysis of both the login records submitted by ECOT and the results of the state's audit for that year further demonstrates the scope of the discrepancy: Under Ohio law, schools are expected to offer students 920 hours of learning. But for the average ECOT student, state officials were able to document just 227 hours spent using the school's learning software, Education Week's review found.
Last fall, the Ohio education department completed attendance audits of 13 e-schools. Nine were found to have overreported their student enrollment. Eight are still contesting their results via administrative appeals with the department. The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow has also sued to throw out the audits, alleging the state education department unfairly and retroactively applied new attendance-reporting requirements to e-schools.
"It's like someone telling you three years after the fact that they need to see your receipts," Marion Little, a lawyer for ECOT, said.
Judge Jenifer French of the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas ruled against the school in December. An appeal to Ohio's 10th District Court is pending.
The Ohio dispute comes amid growing scrutiny of the country's full-time online charter schools. For years, the sector has had to contend with reports of poor academic performance, lack of transparency, and mismanagement.
State regulators, school operators, and online-learning experts continue to disagree about such basic questions as how to track e-school student attendance. Issues related to improving public oversight have proved even thornier. Such debates took on added significance with the selection of Betsy DeVos, a prominent advocate of school choice who supports expanding online school options, as the new U.S. education secretary.
When it comes to figuring out how to best regulate e-schools, the devil is in the details, said Michael K. Barbour, an education professor at Touro University in California.
But one thing is clear, he said: It's a major red flag if a full-time online school can't clear the low bar of getting its students to log in and use learning software.
"These audits reveal a significant lack of engagement among Ohio e-school students in their online studies," Barbour said. "The operators of these schools should be focused on what they can do to address the fact that they simply aren't providing a quality educational experience for their students."
Across the country, roughly 200 full-time online charter schools in 26 states now serve 200,000 students and counting. A 2015 study by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that more than two-thirds of those schools performed worse academically than comparable brick-and-mortar charter and regular public schools.
Ohio is home to 23 full-time online charter schools, 12 of which draw students from across the state. Researchers at New York University and the RAND Corp. recently found that Ohio e-school students typically lose between 75 days and a full school year of learning compared with their peers in the state's brick-and-mortar schools.
Like most states, Ohio funds its e-schools on the basis of enrollment. It provides a base per-pupil allotment of $5,900.
Historically, the Ohio education department determined student attendance, and thus enrollment, based on paperwork submitted by e-school representatives, who certified that students were enrolled and had been offered the 920 hours of learning required by state law.
Problems with that enrollment-verification system date back more than a decade. In 2003, for example, the Associated Press reported that ECOT billed the state for a number of ineligible students, including nine children under 5 years old. In other years, the school did not receive all the funding to which it was entitled, because it underreported enrollment, according to media accounts at the time.
In 2014, the state education department began adopting a more aggressive approach for documenting student attendance, based on asking e-schools to submit records showing when students had logged into and out of their online-learning systems. The department maintains it has long had the authority to do so, but had previously chosen not to exercise that power.
The first e-school test case was the online Provost Academy Ohio. For the 2014-15 school year, Provost had reported the equivalent of 162 full-time students. State officials said the login data showed just one-fifth of that total. Provost agreed last year to repay nearly $800,000 of the $1 million in state funding it had received.
The use of software-login and usage data to hold e-schools accountable represents a significant development in the online-learning field, said Barbour, the Touro University professor.
"If we are looking for a way to measure attendance that is specific to the e-school context, data from the learning management system is probably the best we have available," he said.
In the second half of 2016, the Ohio education department expanded its efforts, using software-login records to audit 13 more e-schools.
State officials ultimately concluded that nine of the schools had overreported their enrollment, by a combined total of more than 12,000 students.
The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, the state's largest e-school, was determined to have overstated its 15,000-student enrollment by more than 9,000 students, according to state officials.
Through an open-records request, the Columbus Dispatch obtained the records behind the Ohio education department's audit of ECOT. An analysis by the newspaper found that as many as 70 percent of the e-school's students had missed enough time during the 2015-16 school year that they could be declared truant under state law.
An Education Week analysis of those same records found that ECOT typically reported that students spent three times more hours learning than state officials were able to document.
Some critics of online schools viewed the results of the state audits as vindication.
"The [education department] should have put its foot down earlier," said state Sen. Joseph Schiavoni, a Democrat who for years has pushed for greater oversight of Ohio e-schools.
'Garbage In, Garbage Out'
Neil Clark, a spokesman and lobbyist for the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, has a different view of the state audits.
"Garbage in, garbage out," said Clark. "That's my response to the department's findings."
Founded in 2000, ECOT has attracted criticism for low graduation rates and millions of dollars in payments to for-profit companies led by its founder, William Lager.
For almost a year, the school has strongly resisted the state's attempts to change how it counts e-school attendance. When the state education department first requested that ECOT provide student software-login records for state review, the school refused to supply the information.
In August, Judge French, of Franklin County, ordered the school to turn the records over. ECOT complied, then filed a lawsuit seeking to block the department from moving forward with an audit based on its new methodology. French denied the school's request for an injunction in September, then ruled against the school on the merits of its case in December.
In its suit, ECOT made a series of arguments: The Ohio education department was violating its years-old funding agreement with the school. The department was unfairly applying a new standard to e-schools, without giving them adequate time to prepare. Existing state law required only that e-schools "offer" 920 hours of learning opportunities, not that students actually take advantage of them.
Furthermore, said Clark, the ECOT lobbyist, the state's narrow focus on login records is "blatantly unfair" because it does not capture all the ways students learn in e-schools. What about children who read a book or go on a field trip? What about supplemental-learning software programs that don't track student time spent logged in? And why aren't Ohio's traditional brick-and-mortar schools, some of which have high chronic truancy rates, also required to document evidence of student engagement?
ECOT will soon have another chance to press such arguments in court. Oral arguments in the school's appeal to Ohio's 10th District Court could begin later this month. Administrative-appeal hearings for eight other Ohio e-schools are also scheduled for March and April, according to a spokeswoman for the state education department.
And 18 new e-school attendance audits will also begin this spring, with final determinations expected in September.
The online education world will be paying close attention. Problems with low student attendance and engagement have cropped up in states such as Colorado, where an Education Week investigation found that just 1 in 4 students at the state's largest cyber charter used the school's learning software on a typical day. A handful of other states, including New Hampshire and Utah, have begun experimenting with a new approach, funding e-schools on the basis of course completion rather than on enrollment or attendance.
But the question of how best to track student attendance in online schools remains very much up for debate. Perhaps the only thing all sides can agree on is that policy and regulations have failed to keep up with e-schools' rapid growth.
"We don't have a silver bullet to change the system," said Clark, the lobbyist for the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. "It needs to be torn down and rebuilt."
Vol. 36, Issue 24, Pages 1, 13Published in Print: March 8, 2017, as Ohio Eyes Repayment From E-Schools