State BOE sharpens claws to help students, taxpayers
The long tarnished image of Ohio’s network of charter schools just got a much needed dash of polish.
That’s because the state Board of Education last week toned up a vastly underdeveloped muscle – namely strict oversight – to forcefully stand up to one strong example of documented abuses and irregularities in the state’s system of about 400 charter or community schools.
Specifically, the state board voted 16-1 to get tough with the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow charter school by demanding that it repay the Ohio Department of Education about $60 million of the $108 million it received for the 2015-2016 school year in state assistance.
The department determined, based on computer log-in durations and offline documentation, that many ECOT students failed to meet the minimum 920 hours of “learning opportunities” required by the state. In fact, ODE said the school reported 15,322 full-time students in the 2015-16 academic year, but the department could verify only 6,313 meeting the state’s absolute minimum-attendance standards.
ECOT’s transgressions were thoroughly documented by the state and later upheld by a hearing officer.
Its abuses cost the state and taxpayers dearly. The ODE’s bill for $60 million represents revenue cash-strapped school districts in the Mahoning Valley and throughout Ohio have lost by student flight into the virtual e-school.
HISTORY OF POOR ACCOUNTABILITY
The findings hardly surprise us. Other performance yardsticks show similar disheartening results. Take graduation rates, for example. Only about 38 percent of ECOT’s students graduate after four years and just 44.1 percent after five years. Also, an investigation by the New York Times found “more students drop out of [ECOT] or fail to finish high school within four years than at any other school in the country, according to federal data.”
Nor are these most recent documented transgressions anything new. As far back as 2001, Jim Petro, then state auditor of Ohio, had determined ECOT received $1.7 million in state largess for students who were never enrolled.
What is new, however, is the aggressive action taken by the state Board of Education, which acted on behalf of many weary and fed-up taxpayers.
Its progressive action complements recent moves by the Republican-controlled Ohio General Assembly to strengthen oversight and regulations of charter schools in order to keep money-grubbing managers and lax professional and academic standards as far away from them as possible.
BATTLE NOT WON YET
It now will be incumbent upon the state board, ODE and state legislators to remain vigilant. To be sure, the fight to clear the vast wasteland of many Ohio charter schools has not yet been won.
Take ECOT, for example. In the aftermath of the board’s action, the e-school has demonstrated unmitigated audacity in challenging the rock-solid findings of state auditors and others. ECOT leaders have taken their complaints to the Ohio Supreme Court.
In the General Assembly, allies of the charter school industry have crafted legislation to permit ECOT to delay repaying the state the $60 million at least until all possible legal recourses are thoroughly exhausted.
From our perspective, ECOT already has received more than its fair share of due process, and the pending state legislation should die an ignoble death.
In the overall vantage point of Ohio’s system of charter schools, the state board’s so-called “clawback” of its funding to ECOT falls in line with the growing recognition that many of these schools – but certainly not all of them – remain inadequate to dysfunctional.
Earlier this year, for example, Paolo DeMaria, state superintendent of public instruction, took the bold move to return $22 million in federal funding for the expansion of charter schools in Ohio in order to give the state time to better address their many strategic problems.
Such bold and disciplined actions must continue as they help pave the way for Ohio to move closer toward a charter-school industry in which students, parents and taxpayers alike can one day invest trust and respect.