The Ohio Supreme Court ruled against the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow on Wednesday, upholding lower court rulings allowing the state department of education to seek repayment of tens of millions of dollars from Ohio’s largest full-time online charter school after it was unable to verify its claims of student enrollment.
The 4-2 decision in favor of the state education department likely signals the final end of ECOT, which once claimed 15,000 students, but closed in the middle of last school year.
It also lends fresh legitimacy to Ohio’s move to use software-login records as a way to track student enrollment and attendance in full-time online schools, an ongoing challenge for the sector.
“We determine that [the state’s charter-school funding law] is unambiguous and authorizes ODE to require an e-school to provide data of the duration of a student’s participation to substantiate that school’s funding,” Justice Patrick Fischer wrote for the court’s majority.
For years, ECOT officials argued unsuccessfully that the state’s requirement that e-schools provide login data represented an illegal and unfair change of the rules. Lawyers for the school also contended that to receive funding, state law only required that e-schools offer learning opportunities to their students—not that students actually participate in online classes.
But state education officials held firm, saying login records substantiated just a fraction of the total enrollment that ECOT officials claimed for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years. All told, the Ohio education department has been going after roughly $80 million in repayments from the school.
After suffering a string of legal and bureaucratic defeats and ultimately shuttering its doors, ECOT has spent the past several months liquidating its assets and dealing with the wide-ranging political fallout from its collapse, while holding out hope that the state supreme court would throw it a lifeline.
A spokesman for the school did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Measuring Attendance in E-schools
The Ohio Supreme Court’s ruling hinged in large part on a provision in state law that holds that when calculating how long a student has been enrolled, e-schools cannot claim more than 10 hours of student participation in any 24-hour period.
“By stating that the maximum daily credit for each student is ten hours, it is apparent that the legislature intended that an e-school will be credited for a student’s participation for less than ten hours in a day. This calculation can be made only by referring to records that contain evidence of the duration of a student’s participation in learning opportunities,” the majority ruling holds.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Terrence O’Donnell argued that nothing in state law indicated that e-school funding should be based “solely on how much time during the day that the student chooses to log onto the school’s network and participate online.”
ECOT isn’t the only Ohio school to be affected by the state’s aggressive move to audit student attendance and funding in its full-time online charters.
At least four other, smaller e-schools in the state have also closed or suspended operations following similar disputes with the state. As a result, other schools—both online and brick-and-mortar—have also dealt with an influx of displaced students.
Ripple Effects for Online Schools
Those changes have had ripple effects throughout the state.
In June, the Ohio Virtual Academy convinced lawmakers to grant some schools receiving ECOT students an exception, temporarily shielding them from being held accountable for potential poor academic performance of the transferring students. The move prompted criticism from e-school skeptics, who said traditional public schools should get the same consideration under similar circumstances.
Last month, the Associated Press reported that about 2,300 students (about 20 percent of the total reported enrollment of ECOT when it shut down) were not currently re-enrolled at another school or otherwise accounted for. Some of those students were over 18, and thus not legally required to be enrolled.
And the uncertain fate of the tens of millions of dollars the state says it is still owed has led to all manner of legal and political wrangling.
Earlier this spring, state auditor Dave Yost (a Republican who is running for state attorney general and was previously a visible supporter of ECOT) said that ECOT officials deliberately misled the state in moves that “may rise to a criminal act.”
State attorney general Mike DeWine, the Republican nominee for Ohio governor, has also gotten the green light from a Franklin County judge to go after the personal assets of ECOT officials—including the homes and companies of founder Bill Lager—as part of the state’s efforts to collect the school’s outstanding debt.