Ohio Lawmakers Call for Charter School Changes Following ECOT Controversy

Jul 13, 2016

ECOT's attempt to block the audit failed earlier this week.
Credit ECOT OHIO

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. But questions about the laws that govern charter schools have supporters and opponents once again calling for changes.

The Ohio Department of Education’s audit seeks to determine if the nearly 15,000 students that ECOT claims are enrolled are getting the 920 hours of learning for which the state is paying ECOT more than $100 million a year. ECOT had claimed that if the audit went forward, the school might have to close because of a significant loss of funding – and ECOT says that could happen because the state is changing the rules that under which it is audited.

How many hours in a school day?
A specific concern is about proof that students logged in for five hours a day, which ECOT says the state education department agreed not to require in its 2003 contract with the e-school.

Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni, a Democrat of the Youngstown area, is a critic of charter schools in general, and ECOT in particular.

“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,” he said.

Transparency still lags
The education department says in its response to ECOT’s lawsuit that the school's required to document students’ log-in and participation, and said 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 state audit to go forward, ECOT says it’s still pursuing its lawsuit. It argues that the five hour per day log-in 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 the Ohio's push to audit ECOT along with a recent tightening of sponsorship rules, requirements for documentation 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 schools 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,” he said.

There are changes that other lawmakers would like to make – especially those who support charter schools. Republican Rep. Andrew Brenner of Powell is the chair of the House Education Committee.

“I’ve been pushing and advocating for a change in the way all schools are funded. I ultimately think that the money following the student is the best route to go,” he said.

And Brenner 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.”

Of those ideas, Schiavoni says he’s concerned about money raised with local school levies following students to charter schools. He’s not outright opposed to a performance-based metric 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 after the general election this fall.