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Ohio's Largest Cyber Charter Closes Mid-Year

ecot-600.jpgAfter a protracted fight with state officials over student attendance and funding, one of the largest full-time online charter schools in the country will shutter its doors mid-year, sending as many as 12,000 students scrambling to find new schools.

The closure of Ohio's Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow is effective today, following a 3-0 vote by the board of the school's sponsor on Thursday evening.

In a statement posted on Facebook Thursday, ECOT officials blasted the decision, saying the Ohio Department of Education should have come to an agreement that would have allowed the school to remain open through the end of the school year.

"By rejecting an offer that would have allowed our current students to finish the year, Governor Kasich, State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria, Diane Lease, and company showed they were more interested in settling a political score than in doing what's best for students," school spokesman and lobbyist Neil Clark in the statement.

The closure comes because ECOT is running out of money, the result of efforts by the Ohio Department of Education to recover roughly $80 million in disputed funds.

After a review of student software-login records for the 2015-16 school year, state officials determined that ECOT had overstated its enrollment by more than 9,000 students, and thus was overpaid by more than $60 million. To recoup those funds, the state has withheld roughly $2.5 million from each of its monthly payments to ECOT this school year

In September, state officials told the school it must also repay an additional $19.2 million, based on a review of 2016-17 student-login records.

For months, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow has been waging a losing court battle against the state over its attendance audits, saying they are the result of retroactive application of an unfair attendance-tracking standard. The Ohio Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in ECOT's latest appeal beginning February 13. In the hopes of avoiding closure, the school had requested an expedited hearing, but the court declined.

Among the big questions that remain following ECOT's shuttering is what will happen to its current students. Public school districts in the state are required to accept local students who were enrolled at the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. Many of those students, however, chose to attend the virtual school because they were dissatisfied with traditional schools or had negative experiences there. The Ohio Department of Education has posted a resource guide for families affected by the closure.

ECOT is not the only Ohio e-school to be adversely affected by the state education department's move to more aggressively audit student attendance and funding at full-time online charters. Over the past two years, at least four other, smaller, Ohio e-schools—Provost Academy, the Marion Digital Academy, Southwest Licking Digital Academy, and the Virtual Community School—have either closed or suspended their operations following attendance and funding disputes with the state. In some cases, the schools' debts to the state are still outstanding.

It remains to be seen who will be held liable for the money that ECOT still owes the state, and how those funds will be collected. Ohio State Auditor Dave Yost is among those who have said companies operated by ECOT founder William Lage, which received large contracts to manage the school and provide it software, should return the money they have already received as part of a repayment plan.

Nationally, the closure of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow casts a bright light on an ongoing challenge for the full-time online charter sector at large: There is still no widely agreed-upon way for tracking student attendance and engagement in such schools, and student engagement with the online software programs that form the bulk of such schools' instructional plans remain opaque. The information that has become public is not encouraging—a 2016 Education Week investigation of Colorado's largest cyber charter, for example, found that just 1 in 4 students used the school's software on a typical day.

ECOT's closure is also notable because it is so rare. Despite sector-wide poor academic performance and repeated scandals involving financial mismanagement at prominent cyber charter schools, very few have been shuttered—in part because of sophisticated lobbying efforts.

For years, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow was one face of that dynamic—Lager is a major Republican donor, which critics contended resulted in a free pass for poor academic performance and questionable management.

Despite waging a multipronged legal and public-relations battle to stay open, however, ECOT is now officially shuttered.

Photo: William Lager, center, founder of Ohio's largest online charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), speaks to hundreds of supporters on May 9 during a rally outside the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio.—Julie Carr Smyth/ AP


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