Bill Bush wrote his first story about Ohio’s largest full-time online charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, back in 2001.
“Joining the growing chorus of concern, the State Board of Education issued a policy paper in July that said blurred lines between charter schools and their contractors were diminishing the likelihood that the schools are providing high-quality educational programs,” read the story in the Columbus Dispatch, where Bush has been a reporter since 1998.
Sixteen years later, Bush and his Dispatch colleagues, including statehouse reporters Jim Siegel and Catherine Candisky, are still covering worries about Ohio’s burgeoning e-school sector. Their work was highlighted in Widespread Reports of Trouble, Education Week’s interactive roundup of 15 years’ worth of local news coverage of problems at full-time online schools in 22 states.
The biggest Ohio e-school story over the past year: a push by the state education department to audit attendance at the full-time online schools using student-login records. A first round of reviews found that nine e-schools had overstated their enrollment by a combined 12,000 students. A Dispatch analysis of ECOT’s audit showed that nearly 70 percent of the school’s students missed enough school to be considered truant under state law.
The education department could seek to claw back more than $80 million in taxpayer funds, but the e-schools are vigorously contesting the state’s methodology and motivations. Neil Clark, a lobbyist and spokesman for ECOT, is among those who consider the state audits “blatantly unfair.”
Today, Education Week published a page-one look at the dispute. It’s an important follow-up to our eight-month investigation of the cyber charter industry across the country—which included an in-depth look at Colorado’s largest cyber, where internal login records obtained by Education Week showed that just 1 in 4 students was using the school’s learning software on a typical day.
Across the country, the question of how to best track and report student attendance in a full-time online school remains unresolved, contributing to the significant uncertainty around e-schools’ funding and performance.
To get a deeper look at how the issue has played out in Ohio, Education Week spoke with Bush and Siegel about their coverage, what they’ve learned, and what’s likely to happen next.
Following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
When did Ohio e-schools first appear on your radar screen?
Bush: These were brand new in 2001, and we were just trying to explore how they were going to work, how they were going to be governed. They put together this board for ECOT from basically a group of people that the owner, William Lager, knew, some of whom he met at the Waffle House. And he paid them $500 to be on the board.
Siegel: It really wasn’t until about a year ago when we really started to get into the current situation. I knew there was a push at the legislature to make some pretty big, controversial changes to charter school law with regard to their attendance and what e-schools were required to provide. I caught word that this was maybe not coincidental, that there was a reason this was coming up. It turned out that a much smaller e-school, Provost Academy, was having major problems with the department of education in terms of justifying its enrollment. In fact, it had been told it had to repay 80 percent of its funding because they could not verify that their students were actually logging in.
How would you describe e-schools’ current place in Ohio’s education landscape?
Bush: ECOT is the biggest player. It’s the General Motors of charter schools in Ohio.
Siegel: The school is so large, it almost has to be considered their own entity. A number of e-schools right now have similar concerns about what the state has started to require, in terms of documenting log-in and log-out times. But no other e-school has anyone who’s close to as politically active as ECOT founder Bill Lager.
How well do most Ohioans understand how e-schools work in their state?
Siegel: I think information is starting to get through. I was told by some lawmakers out campaigning last year that they are hearing more about this from constituents. In a situation like this, where you’ve got over $100 million going to one school and there are so many questions, people are starting to get a sense that this is something they should pay attention to and start questioning if the right policy decisions are being made.
Bush: The attendance issue has come up in the last year. How e-schools were taking attendance was not well understood by the public, and even the state auditor’s office, with how they were treating truancy and things of that nature. The spotlight has been shined on them lately, but up until that point, there was a lot of confusion and a lot of misunderstanding about what e-schools were supposed to be doing.
Is the state education department’s policy on this issue sound, and has it been well-communicated to e-schools?
Siegel: That is definitely one of ECOT’s main arguments. The other is that the department of education changed the rules on them halfway through the school year. The lack of communication has been a concern definitely among e-schools.
Bush: The thing is, the method they’re using to calculate attendance is basically the method they use to calculate how e-schools get paid in Ohio. It’s kind of amazing that the e-schools haven’t had to document what they were doing for their money for so long. The state education department is finally getting around to saying, “Hey, we need to see records that show you’re actually teaching these students.”
Are login records a good, fair measure for determining when students were in attendance at an e-school?
Bush: I think that would be a great place to start, if they can at least show that. I think there probably is a system that could be developed that would track how many hours of educational services e-schools provided. But I don’t think it’s in place today.
Siegel: One of the arguments we’ve been hearing from ECOT and the mostly Republican lawmakers who defend ECOT is that there is a difference between attendance and enrollment, and the state is trying to mix the two together. But even if there’s validity to that, I don’t know many people who think it’s a good idea to only have students log in once a month and have taxpayers still paying $6,000 for that student.
What’s been the reaction to your coverage?
Siegel: You’re starting to see situations where [some Republicans in the state legislature and charter-school advocates] say we support school choice, but this type of thing could give the whole system a bad name.
Bush: This story has struck a nerve with superintendents all across Ohio, because they all have students who attend e-schools, and they’re all losing state aid. So when they find out they lost $7,000 and the kid only logged in four times in a year, they don’t like that.
What happens next?
Siegel: There’s a court of appeals hearing in this case, we should hopefully hear about that in the next month or two. There are also administrative appeals with the education department. There have been continuous rumors that the legislature may try to step in and pass something that bails ECOT out. But I’ve also been told this issue is too radioactive right now, they don’t feel they can step in and do that right now without really looking bad. So it’s still wait and see.
Photos of Bill Bush (top) and Jim Siegel courtesy the Columbus Dispatch
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.