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Fight Over One of the Largest Virtual Charters Heads to Ohio's High Court

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ECOT_founder- photobox.jpg

The Ohio Supreme Court has decided to take up a case involving one of the largest online charter schools in the country, according to the Associated Press.

The legal fight over attendance numbers and $60 million in public money between the state of Ohio and the school, known as the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, has been steadily rising through the lower courts over the past year.

With more than 15,000 students, ECOT is the largest online charter school in the state. But that number is in dispute.

After an audit of software-login records, the Ohio Department of Education determined that ECOT was dramatically inflating the number of students attending—or in this case, logging into—its school.

An independent analysis by Education Week of ECOT login records and the results of the state's audit underscores the discrepancy between the two. While Ohio law requires schools to provide students 920 hours per year of learning, the state found the average ECOT student spent 227 hours using the school's learning software.

Officials in Ohio's department of education say they have only been able to find proof of 41 percent of ECOT's 15,000 students attending school full time. The agency subsequently determined that it had overpaid ECOT by about $60 million for students it didn't consider fully enrolled and has demanded the money back.

In its lawsuit, ECOT argued that state law only requires the school to "offer" 920 hours of learning opportunities, not necessarily that students actually participate. The school says the state violated their long-standing funding agreement and changed the rules midstream without giving the school time to react.

The school has also struggled with low graduation numbers. Last month, it announced plans to apply to become a dropout-prevention school, which would slacken some accountability requirements, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

Online education advocates everywhere are likely playing close attention to this case. As my colleague Benjamin Herold wrote for Education Week earlier this year:

"Problems with low student attendance and engagement have cropped up in states such as Colorado, where an Education Week investigation found that just 1 in 4 students at the state's largest cyber charter used the school's learning software on a typical day. A handful of other states, including New Hampshire and Utah, have begun experimenting with a new approach, funding e-schools on the basis of course completion rather than on enrollment or attendance.

"But the question of how best to track student attendance in online schools remains very much up for debate. Perhaps the only thing all sides can agree on is that policy and regulations have failed to keep up with e-schools' rapid growth."

ECOT and several other online charter schools in Ohio have also been under increasing scrutiny over claims of mismanagement and poor academic performance, which are persistently recurring themes in the online charter school sector nationally, according to a separate analysis by Education Week.

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Photo: Bill 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. The online charter school is in a legal dispute with the Ohio Department of Education over attendance-tracking practices used to determine state funding. —Julie Carr Smyth/ AP

 

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