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Ohio Legislature has duty to monitor virtual schools

Friday, August 19, 2016

For two decades the state of Ohio shifted billions of dollars from traditional public schools to charter schools with minimal oversight. And no segment of the charter-school movement received less scrutiny than the “virtual schools” – those operations that took nearly $6,000 in state funds from local public schools for every student who was provided a computer, internet access and a curriculum.

There is a simple explanation for the state’s past tendency to demand accountability from public schools, yet throw money at charter schools as if there were no tomorrow: political influence. Charter schools were the beneficiary of a combination of campaign money, dissatisfaction with underperforming public schools, especially in urban areas, and a small but fervent ideological opposition to “government schools.”

But eventually, the state’s historical lack of oversight led a vocal handful of politicians and even some operators of charter schools to call for reform.

In October 2015, the General Assembly passed legislation that dramatically increased financial and academic transparency in charter operations, but still not to the extent that public school districts are held to account.

One of the most-vocal advocates for reform has been state Auditor Dave Yost. Yost has used his office in ways not seen before to try to ensure that charter schools are not wasting taxpayer money, conducting informal audits of attendance records and making surprise inspections at charter schools. During one of those visits to a Youngstown charter school, auditors found not a single student in attendance.

Now Yost is calling attention to one of the most-glaring examples of charter schools run amok, the operation of on-line schools. He is calling for the General Assembly to pass legislation that would tie payment for e-school classes to demonstrable educational goals for the students. If e-schools are working, no legitimate school should object to being required to demonstrate its efficacy.

Just as it took too long for the General Assembly to respond to the shortcomings of some traditional charter-school operators, Ohio’s legislators have been remiss in demanding accountability from virtual schools.

Low performance

A report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools released in June said Ohio residents should be “outraged” by the low performance of several of the state’s internet charters.

The Columbus Dispatch reported that nearly 23,000 students attended the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow in 2015, many for just weeks or months. ECOT, the state’s largest charter, met four of Ohio’s 33 performance indicators that track the percentage of students who are considered proficient in various subjects. An ECOT spokesman told the Dispatch that the report was unreliable and flawed.

If the national charter-school advocacy group’s study was flawed, then ECOT should welcome legislation that will establish guidelines specific to Ohio that would provide clarity.

Last month, the Ohio Department of Education asked ECOT to prove that its students spent at least one hour online per day during the 2015-16 school year.

ECOT Superintendent Rich Teeters found such a demand onerous. The Plain Dealer of Cleveland reported that Teeters wrote on the school’s Facebook page that such an “underhanded procedural change … would likely force us and other e-schools to close our doors altogether.” ECOT filed an unsuccessful lawsuit seeking to block the DOE from conducting its audit.

If an e-school isn’t capable of taking e-attendance, perhaps it should close. The state of Ohio funneled $247 million to e-schools last year.

State Sen. Joe Schiavoni of Boardman, D-33rd, has taken the common-sense position that the state should be paying only for students who are enrolled, signed-on each day and receiving an education.

The issue goes beyond the General Assembly’s responsibility to be a prudent steward of tax dollars; it goes to the requirement in the Ohio Constitution that the state “provide a thorough and efficient system of common schools.” The computer age has brought us to a point that virtual schools are a reality; it is the responsibility of the Legislature and state officials to see that these new schools are thorough and efficient.