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Ohio's Largest Online Charter School Tries to Block Audit, Judge Says No

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By Benjamin Herold. This story originally appeared on the Digital Education blog.

An Ohio judge denied a motion by the state's largest full-time online charter school Monday to block a state audit of its attendance records. Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow Superintendent Rick Teeters warned the review could ultimately lead to the closure of the 15,000-student school, long under scrutiny by media and state officials for its poor performance.

"Without court intervention, these underhanded procedural changes would severely limit our ability to provide a quality school experience. In fact, they would likely force us and other e-schools to close our doors altogether," Teeters said in a statement shared with supporters via social media.

At issue are potentially tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer funding. Based on a preliminary review of the school's enrollment and attendance records in May, education department officials believe the school may have significantly overcharged the state. The review found that many students were logged in to the school's system for far less than the recommended five hours per day.

A previous review of attendance records at Ohio's far-smaller online Provost Academy led to the state demanding $800,000 in reimbursement, a total that amounted to roughly 80 percent of the school's total funding, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

Teeters of ECOT argued in his message to supporters that adjusting virtual schools' per-pupil funding based on student login records amounts to changing the rules midstream. ECOT's policy requires students to spend at least five hours per day on "learning opportunities," some of which may take place offline. But ECOT officials argue that current state statute stipulates that funding be based on what e-schools offer, rather than what students do.

Across the country, the question of how full-time online charters track attendance has suddenly emerged as a flash point. Earlier this week, California's state attorney general announced a multi-million dollar settlement with K12 Inc., the nation's largest operator of cyber charter schools, over issues including questionable student attendance reporting at the California Virtual Academies.  The Pennsylvania Department of Education is also reviewing "irregularities" in attendance reporting at Agora Cyber Charter, an 8,500-student school that until recently was also managed by K12.

The issue is part of a renewed battle over the performance and operations of full-time online charter schools, which serve roughly 200,000 students across 26 states. A series of 2015 research reports detailed abysmal academic performance throughout the sector, and last month a group of pro-charter school organizations called for a complete overhaul of state policies governing the schools.

Founded in 2000 by William Lager, Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow has been among the cyber charters that has drawn the sharpest criticism in the country, both for its poor academic track record and for its management practices. In May, the New York Times reported that the school paid companies associated with Lager almost $23 million—a hefty chunk of the $115 million in public funds the school received overall. 

On the attendance issue, ECOT had sought late last week a temporary restraining order and injunction that would have prevented the Ohio Department of Education from imposing a "log-in time/duration requirement" as part of any audit or review that would be used to determine per-pupil funding.

Instead of the actual amount of time students spent logged into its software, the school argued that its attendance records and funding should instead be based on the "learning opportunities 'offered' or 'presented' to students," whether the students took advantage of them or not, in accordance with existing state statute.

According to documents from the state's initial review of ECOT's attendance records, school staff argued that student learning time could also be demonstrated in ways other than logins, but related documentation was not provided to state reviewers.

While Ohio's position is that login times can and should be used to determine student attendance and enrollment, the state argued in court filings that it should be allowed to proceed with its audit because no related outcome was imminent.  Even if the state did determine that it had been overcharged, it would see restitution through a series of deductions in payments to the involved school, rather than via a single lump-sum payment.

Democrats in the state Senate, who have been pushing for a bill that would provide tighter regulation of cyber charters' online attendance records, reacted happily to the court ruling Monday that a state audit can go forward.

"The judge's decision to allow the Department of Education's audit to proceed is a victory for transparency and accountability in state government," said Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni in a statement. "Hopefully it's a sign of needed changes to come. ECOT's failure to educate its students and continued wasting of tax dollars cannot go on any longer."

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