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Ohio Orders State's Largest Cyber Charter to Repay $60M in Attendance Dispute

The Ohio State Board of Education voted Monday to order the state's largest full-time online charter school to repay $60 million in state aid. The vote is the result of a state audit of software-login records that determined that the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow had dramatically overstated its enrollment.

The vote was 16-1 in favor of forcing the repayment.

Officials of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow vowed to continue fighting the results of the audit, which they have long contended is inaccurate and unfair. 

"Any order (to repay the money) is irresponsible, premature, and vindictive until court appeals are exhausted," ECOT lobbyist and spokesman Neil Clark told the Columbus Dispatch.

The school's arguments have previously been rejected by the Franklin County Common Pleas Court. The court last week denied ECOT's request for an emergency injunction.

In March, Education Week provided in-depth coverage of the long-running dispute between the state education department and a number of the Ohio e-schools, of which the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow is by far the largest. ECOT 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 found that for the average ECOT student, state officials were able to document an average of just 227 hours spent using the school's learning software—far lower than the 920 hours of student learning expected under state law.

The Ohio dispute highlights the ways in which tracking online student attendance and using the results to determine online schools' funding levels have become increasingly fraught issues for states and e-school operators across the country.  In 2016, for example, Education Week investigated Colorado's largest cyber charter, which receives more than $28 million annually in state funds. The investigation found that on a typical day, just 1 in 4 students use the school's learning software.

The state education department last year found that in addition to ECOT, eight other Ohio e-schools overstated their student enrollments.

Should ECOT repay the $60 million as ordered by the state, the money would be "returned to state coffers and could then be distributed back to students' home school districts," according to the Dispatch

ECOT officials have previously suggested that such a move could force them to close the school. 

In Ohio and elsewhere across the country, cyber charters have also come under withering scrutiny for poor academic results and a persistent pattern of fiscal mismanagement.


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