The State of Education in Ohio

The State of Education in Ohio
Posted on 02/13/2018
Image of ECOT Rally
ECOT, charter schools and the Supreme Court

(courtesy of cleveland.com)

The two-year battle over state funding for the ECOT online charter school goes to the Ohio Supreme Court Tuesday, with at least $80 million in tax dollars, the future of the school and Ohio's approach to charter schools all hanging in the balance.

It's a fight that has shut down the once-powerful online giant - at least temporarily - and displaced 12,000 students in the middle of the school year.

It's also a fight that has ramifications how the state grapples with its nationally-ridiculed $1 billion-per-year charter school industry.

Here's what you should know as this case goes to court:

Can I watch it?

The hearing will be broadcast live on the Ohio Channel, starting at 9 a.m.

Lawyers for the school and for the Ohio Department of Education will have 15 minutes each to make oral arguments to the justices. Justices can then ask questions to clarify the arguments, with a ruling expected late in the spring or early summer.

Ohio has lots of charter schools. Why is this one so important?

Because the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) is the biggest charter school in Ohio - bigger than all but 13 school districts in the state - and was once the largest online school in the nation.

ECOT received more than $100 million in state tax dollars each year until the recent funding dispute, while drawing students and funding from 95 percent of the school districts in Ohio. Those include more than 800 from Cleveland, more than 200 from Akron and about 120 from districts like Parma and Elyria.

The state's attempt to make ECOT pay back up to $80 million in funding is also the strongest action Ohio has ever taken against a high-profile charter school. After a history of fudging rules to let some charters escape accountability, the Ohio Department of Education has has pressed its case against ECOT despite heated opposition.

That's a particularly dramatic shift for a politically-connected school, whose founder William Lager is a major donor to the Ohio Republican Party and Republican candidates.

What is this fight about?

Though many are critical of ECOT's academic record, that's not part of this dispute.

This case is instead about money - whether online schools like ECOT should be paid by the state based on their enrollment or whether schools have to document how much students participate in classes.

The Ohio Department of Education changed to the latter in 2016, after years of funding schools solely on enrollment. ECOT and its supporters say that violated state law and was imposed without warning.

Franklin County Common Pleas Court and a state appeals court have sided with the department so far, leaving it to the Ohio Supreme Court to decide.

How much of a difference did that change make?

Millions of dollars worth.

Under the new requirements, ECOT could document class participation of only 6,300 of its 15,300 students for the 2015-16 school year - a 59% gap - leading the state school board to demand that ECOT repay $60 million.

Then again last September, the state found that for the 2016-17 school year ECOT can properly document about 11,600 of the 14,200 students it claimed. ECOT could not prove that the other 18.5 percent of its students did enough classwork to satisfy the state.

That's another $20 million for the state to recover.

The state has also found a lack of documentation at other e-schools in the state and is seeking to recover money from them, too.

Why did ECOT close?

ECOT has returned about $26 million of that money to the state since last July, calculations by State Auditor Dave Yost show. But Yost and the school project that returnng money at the same $4 million-per-month pace would leave ECOT broke by March.

The school was shut down Jan. 19 - at the end of its second quarter - to avoid running out of money mid-term.

The sponsor of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) has voted to close the controversial online school amid budget troubles

What happened to the students?

All lost their school mid-year and must seek new ones - a process that is not yet complete. In an update to the state school board, State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria estimated Monday that 7,600 have either enrolled in new schools or have started doing so.

Early trends had students looking to other online schools like Ohio Virtual Academy and Ohio Connections Academy more than traditional schools.

Could they return to ECOT if the school wins?

Not this year. A ruling won't come soon enough, but the school could re-open next year since ECOT reserved that right.

What does the law say about funding?

It's complicated, or the case would have been easily resolved.

Much of state law talks about funding for charter schools being based on enrollment, with no requirements for showing participation. Laws require schools to offer "learning opportunities" but do not spell out whether students have to take advantage of them.

Other portions, though, refer to hours of learning and how many hours can be counted in a given day. Lawyers for the Ohio Department of Education have seized on these.

ECOT says ...

In court hearings, ECOT officials said they should be paid for students, even if they rarely sign on and do just enough to avoid being declared truant. They also note that other schools, including traditional districts, don't have to prove class participation and collect money for students who skip class constantly.

"The Ohio Department of Education has taken it upon itself to unilaterally re-write Ohio law pertaining to the funding of eschools (but not other types of schools, whether of the traditional or charter variety)," ECOT lawyers write in their appeal. "And, it has done so despite the lack of any type of legislative change in the statutory funding formula."

The state says ...

Lawyers for the Ohio Department of Education have called ECOT's position absurd.

"ECOT is claiming that ... (it)could have earned over $100 million in taxpayer funding for the 2015-16 school year, even if not a single one of its students accessed a single learning opportunity for the entire year," they wrote the court recently. "Thankfully for Ohio's taxpayers and the families who entrust their children's education to eschools, that is not what the Funding Statute says, as two courts have already ruled."

Others weigh in

State officials and candidates are picking sides, with Republicans often backing the school and Democrats backing the department. Some have filed their own briefs with the court in support of their side.
  • The Democratic Caucus of both the Ohio House and Senate say the state should count how much time students spend on online classes to determine funding.
    "Those who are paid to educate students must actually provide education to students," the brief co-signed by Sen. Joe Schiavonni, a candidate for governor, reads. "If ECOT is permitted to receive full funding after not providing education to students in their charge, it will compound the harm already done to the children who were not taught."
  • Former Republican legislators, led by former House Speaker William Batchelder of Medina, say they voted for laws to specifically base charter school funding on enrollment, not participation, and that the state is going against their intent now.
    "It was contrary to the clear legislative intent embodied in the statute," they said of the department's shift. "This Court should give effect to the legislative intent and reject ODE's attempt to make new policy."
    Joining that brief were former Rep. Jim Trakas, who represented parts of Cuyahoga County, Chuck Calvert of Medina County and Bryan Williams of Summit County.
  • The Ohio Coalition for Quality Education, a charter organization that has backed ECOT in several fights with the state, called the state's justification for the funding change a "tortured" reading of state law.
  • And several other online schools - Akron Digital Academy, Newark Digital Academy, Phonenix Academy and Quaker Digital Academy - say the funding change caught them by surprise and that they lost money because they could not compile documentation retroactively.
    They urged the court to reject "durational" requirements.
    "The outcome will ultimately determine how the Academies are funded and, consequently, whether they will continue to exist in the future," they wrote.
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