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Online school’s plug should have been pulled years ago

Saturday, January 27, 2018

If one were searching for the face of what ails Ohio’s largely failing network of charter or community schools, one needn’t look any farther than the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. The now d efunct online charter school – the largest in Ohio with an estimated 12,000 students – was shut down last week as its financial problems snowballed to a point of no return.

The Lucas County Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West in Toledo, ECOT’s sponsor, pulled the plug on the online K-12 online charter school last week. That action was long overdue for the failing money-grubbing institution.

ECOT failed many, including the state’s tax-paying public. Thanks to more aggressive monitoring of charter schools in general and ECOT in particular by the office of Ohio Auditor Dave Yost, investigators determined that the state grossly overpaid the online charter school in assistance dollars.

They found that ECOT wildly overstated its attendance, or student participation in actual learning. Of the roughly $100 million in public funds the school received for the 2015-16 academic year, 60 percent wasn’t deserved.

Similarly during the 2016-17 school year, the state concluded that ECOT had to pay back some $20 million for its false claims.

Those millions of dollars of unearned revenue could have gone to much more effective use had they been channeled toward the state’s financially struggling but much more closely monitored public school districts.

ECOT, of course, also failed many of its students. Although it had the largest graduating class of any high school in the United States in 2016 with more than 2,000 students, it also had the highest rate of students who dropped out (or failed to complete the school in four years) of any secondary school in the country.

Its generally atrocious standardized test scores ranked among the worst of the worst statewide as well.

As Brittany Halpin, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Education, put it, “After two years of trying to work with ECOT, it’s important to note they still refuse to cooperate in good faith with the department to accurately report their students’ participation — a direct reflection of the amount of education a student receives.

“Had ECOT accurately reported student participation, the records would have shown that students were not getting the education taxpayers paid for,” she said.

The ECOT experience thus has risen as the latest and one of the most egregious examples of the lax regulation, scant oversight, profiteering and politicking that have soiled the image of many charter schools in Ohio over the past several decades.

As we have argued ad nauseam in this space over the years, billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on this experiment in education that largely has proven to be a failure. Republicans continue to argue that charter schools are needed to give parents who are unhappy with underperforming public schools an alternative. But widespread waste of money and the generally poor academic performance of a majority of Ohio charters have proved the critics right.


As for the immediate adverse impact of ECOT’s closing, the state should do all it can to help the 12,000 families of students locate and get acclimated to a new charter school or, preferably, public school.

We’d hope school systems, including the Youngstown City District, would roll out the welcome mat for them. Cleveland, for example, is going to great lengths to actively recruit students and streamline their entry into appropriate classes.

For the longer term, the ECOT dilemma illustrates yet again the need for more aggressive policy reform in the governance and oversight of online and brick-and-mortar charter schools in our state.

Toward that end, legislation sponsored by state Sen. Joe Schiavoni of Boardman, D-33rd, merits serious consideration in the Ohio General Assembly. Senate Bill 39, introduced by the Democratic candidate for governor, has been stalled in committee for nearly one year now.

It rightly would require e-schools to keep an accurate record of the number of hours each individual student actively participates in coursework each day and report it regularly to the Ohio Department of Education. It also would require that such schools provide 920 hours of public instruction each school year, a standard equivalent to the demand placed on all public schools.

That latter requirement also speaks to the crying need for broader reforms to ensure that charter schools throughout Ohio are subject to all of the same academic standards and accountability rules of their public school counterparts.

Until that day dawns, more examples of the failures epitomized by ECOT that shortchange students and damage the educational landscape of Ohio no doubt loom on our horizon.