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Audit Finds Ohio Online Charter Inflated Attendance, School Could Owe Millions

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

Just 41 percent of the 15,000 students at Ohio's largest full-time online charter school do enough work to be considered full-time students, according to a state education department audit

As a result, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow could be ordered to repay roughly $60 million in public funds.

ECOT has 10 days to appeal the state's findings. The school's lawyers are also challenging in court the legitimacy of the state's approach to counting enrollment in full-time online schools.

At issue are records demonstrating how often cyber students—who work primarily from home, via the Internet—log in to their school's online learning platforms, as well as much time they spend using their school's learning software. State guidelines indicate that students in full-time online schools should be spending about five hours per day on schoolwork.

A preliminary audit conducted earlier this year, however, found evidence that most ECOT students logged in for only an hour or so per day. 

When the state education department requested more extensive records, the school sued, arguing that the state had changed its requirements for attendance reporting midstream and was unfairly applying new rules retroactively. In August, an Ohio judge ordered the school to turn over a sample of 750 randomly selected student records.

From those, the state education department determined that ECOT could only document 6,312 full-time students—far fewer than the 15,322 students for whom the school received per-pupil funding from the state during the 2015-16 school year.  

A spokesman for the school described the audit as a "sham."

"It is impossible for any e-school to meet the retroactive demands of ODE, which is why no e-school in the state has been able to do so," ECOT spokesman Neil Clark told the Columbus Dispatch. 

The school's leader previously suggested that the results of the audit could lead to a "death spiral."

Earlier this year, the Ohio education department found that a smaller cyber charter in the state, Provost Academy, had billed for five times as many students as it should have, based on student attendance and login records. The school was ordered to repay nearly 80 percent of the state funding it had received.

And across the country, cyber charter attendance has become a point of contention. In July,  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 probing "irregularities" in attendance reporting at the 8,500-student Agora Cyber Charter.

Roughly 200 full-time online charter schools serve more than 200,000 students across the country.  In 2015, Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that the schools on average have an "overwhelming negative impact" on student learning.

A number of pro-school-choice groups, including the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and the Ohio-based Fordham Institute, have recently called for major policy reforms in the sector.

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