Photo: Amy Voigt for the Toledo Blade

For two decades, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, a virtual charter school, served thousands of students in Lucas County, OH. But the institution imploded when it could not provide evidence that nearly 60 percent of its 12,000 students were hitting the minimum amount of state-required learning time. Unable to pay back $60 million in overpayments demanded by the Ohio Department of Education, the school was forced into bankruptcy. With a new Ohio online school opening in the wake of the ECOT fallout, I analyzed what changes in e-school oversight regulation the state had since made, and if and how new statutory language and measures could prevent another massive failure in online education accountability. 

What has changed for e-schools since the ECOT fallout?

Toledo Blade, Sept. 16, 2019.

Lexus Wills, 19, of Newark, Ohio, has nothing negative to say about her online alma mater.

She loved the virtual charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, for the flexibility it afforded her and had enrolled because of ongoing health issues. Ms. Wills was able to take extra classes in game programming and web design while also spending hours outside her home. She could finish assignments weeks early and feel prepared for the days ahead.

So when she learned in 2017 that her school would be shuttered mid-school year, she was anxious about having to parachute into a brand-new brick-and-mortar school for the last four months before graduating. But because she had taken extra classes, she was able to graduate — albeit without a formal ceremony — in January 2018, the same month the school ceased to exist.

Many of the estimated 12,000 displaced ECOT students were not so lucky.

ECOT, once Ohio’s largest online school and operated by the for-profit company Altair Learning Management, fought to stay operating when the state Department of Education set out to recoup from it $79 million in state funding after determining the school could not prove with data the number of people who logged into the system long enough to be considered full-time students.

ECOT unsuccessfully argued before the Ohio Supreme Court that the Department had suddenly changed its method of calculating enrollment figures. Near bankrupt, the Toledo-based school sponsor shuttered and settled for $879,000.

The legal battle became partisan as ECOT founder and lawsuit defendant William Lager was tied financially to an overwhelmingly Republican group of politicians.

With the fallout of ECOT in the backdrop of the education landscape of Ohio today, e-schools have been brought further under state and national spotlight. This fall, another online school, the Ohio Digital Learning School, is opening its servers to students as a dropout recovery and prevention center.

Concurrently, state legislators have been working on exploring and enacting new legislation that examines and enforces accountability of virtual schools.

Learning from mistakes

Ohio is considered one of the “big three” cyber charter states — California and Pennsylvania are the other two — which collectively comprise more than half the nation’s full-time virtual student enrollments.

Although Ohio is a hub for e-school learning, many in the state, including those who support charter schools and full-time virtual schooling, recognize that fundamental problems exist within the virtual charter movement in both funding and performance accountability.

A 2016 study by the conservative, pro-charter Thomas B. Fordham Institute showed that across all grades and subjects, Ohio e-school students perform worse on state tests than similar students in brick-and-mortar district schools, even when accounting for prior underachievement.

“[Ohio has] been dubbed the wild wild west of charter school oversight,” said Stephen Dyer, an education policy fellow with progressive think tank Innovation Ohio. “There has been some movement in e-school policy changes, but there is still a way to go.”

Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy at Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said Ohio has done more than any other state in trying to get a handle on online education policy and accountability in recent years, working to strengthen and correct what was clearly functioning improperly.

“Part of this is the recognition of what was occurring at ECOT,” he said. “The government, like anyone else, learns from mistakes.”

In the past, if an Ohio e-school enrolled a student, the school received full payment for them from the state. In early 2016, the Ohio Department of Education began requiring schools to provide participation evidence for the requisite 920 hours of engagement a year — a move that caught ECOT officials by surprise and brought the school under scrutiny for over-reporting and over-billing to the tune of thousands of students.

“Basically, you enroll the kid and unless the school says we don’t have them anymore, or the Department of Education comes in, the department assumes you have the kid. It’s that simple,” Mr. Dyer said of Ohio’s accountability system.

Now, a new legislative committee is studying models and reporting recommendations on funding online schools that move past using screen time proxies for participation measures. While a committee created in House Bill 216 was meant to issue a report last November, the new budget has language for a new, but similar provision.

Testimony collected so far has centered on the current funding methodology vs. competency and completion-based funding — systems that are used in at least four states, Mr. Aldis said. In New Hampshire, for example, a teacher determines competencies mastered by the students before the state provides payment. In Florida, the state requires students to pass an end-of-course exam.

“Competency is a high bar,” Mr. Aldis said. “Sometimes students learn a lot in class, sometimes not that much. Should public schools not get funding because the student didn’t learn as much?”

Conversely, though, if saying that only a student passing the class will generate funding, pressure would be put on both students and teachers, who would think “my school is not going to get funding if myself or my student fails,” Mr. Aldis said. He sees the discussion on these models, or possibly a hybrid model, as being necessary but not easy.

Todd Ziebarth, the senior vice president for state advocacy and support for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said Ohio examinations of performance-based funding models look promising for the state’s future.

Missing, meeting standards

This statutory language and new measures will be put into practice with a new Ohio Digital Learning School, for which classes began August 19. The school will serve as a dropout and recovery center for students aged 16 and 21 who will have access to individual career plan counseling, targeted dropout prevention care, and block scheduling for a quicker ability to catch up on credits.

Because of their specialized nature, dropout recovery and prevention charter schools are held to much lower performance accountability standards than traditional charter schools — and because of this, some have raised concerns about the new school’s opening.

Per state law, a dropout recovery school with a 4-year graduation rate of 8 percent and above is considered to “meet standards” for the school’s report card issued by the Ohio Department of Education. For students who graduate within 5 to 8 years, the required graduation rate to meet standards is 12 percent for dropout recovery schools.

Mr. Dyer said he is also concerned about the new school being operated by K12, Inc., which already manages the Ohio Virtual Academy — an online school with more than 11,000 students. In its 2018 report card, the Ohio Virtual Academy received an overall D rating — seeing a four-year graduation rate of 61 percent.

Mr. Dyer wonders if K12, Inc., the for-profit operator of Ohio Virtual Academy, will take its lowest-performing students, including all its recovered students from ECOT, and transfer them into the new school, which is held to lower performance standards — “to basically get rid of the kids who were driving down their ratings,” he said.

Kathleen Harkless, superintendent of the Ohio Digital Learning School, told The Blade that even a year or two ago, she knew this was a concern some would have of the new e-school. She had read an article about school districts elsewhere opening dropout recovery centers and transferring students to make their accountability measures look better.

“It is not our intention to move over mass amounts of students from OHVA,” Ms. Harkless said, adding that the school is under a statewide mandatory camp that prohibits enrolling more than 1,000 students in the school’s first year of operation.

So far, roughly 60 students have enrolled in the new school and 35 have come from Ohio Virtual Academy, Ms. Harkless said. The school will also begin with 15 instructional teachers.

Ms. Harkless said the school partnered with K12 because of the sponsor’s “commitment to transparency,” citing that K12’s Ohio Virtual Academy recently won the Ohio Auditor of State Award for financial reporting and transparency.

Although some differences in accountability measures exist between traditional and drop-out recovery e-schools, students at Ohio Digital Learning School will be required to meet the same academic requirements in class, she said.

Seventy other dropout prevention and recovery charter schools exist in the state, six of which are e-schools, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

“It is still a parent’s choice and a student’s choice of where to go,” Mr. Aldis said. “At the end of the day, parents make those choices [to enter dropout recovery schools] typically because they have specialized programs, assistance, and is structured in a way that helps students get the skills they need when they think it will serve their kids better.”

The idea of dropout recovery schools with the issues already faced by online school engagement is difficult to reconcile. And the quality, not just the accountability, of e-school student performance is also in question.

Mr. Dyer said many believe that while dropout recovery schools are meant to be “catching the kids” who fall through the education system, far too many fall through the cracks.

“You should not be able to make money and fail kids, and right now that is the standard in Ohio,” he said.

Robin Lake, director of the non-partisan Center on Reinventing Public Education, agreed.

“It's potentially a pretty toxic recipe if a kid is already in troubled situations and left in their room all day and expected to get their education that way,” she said.

But e-schools also have the potential to provide those students with the intervention and support they need, she added.

“I am very convinced that kids who have been in a difficult situation — maybe have a teen pregnancy and can’t or don’t want to go to school or have had some criminal past — these schools provide well-needed opportunities to get people on track,” Ms. Lake said. “I am adamant that we need to work on this.”