Ohio’s largest online charter school has promised to continue its legal battle with the state department of education. But the state school board still voted today to require the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow to return $60 million in overpayments for students it couldn’t prove were enrolled full time.
Simply put, ECOT is paid by the state for the number of full time students enrolled, as all traditional and charter schools are. And a 165-page report from an Ohio Department of Education hearing officer determined ECOT counted 9,000 more full time students than it actually had last year, inflating its full time enrollment by 60% to receive $108 million in state funding. At first the board considered an amendment from member Cathye Flory to demand ECOT pay back $64 million, which was one total noted in the report. “I feel like that’s, they’ve cheated the children and the taxpayers, and I just feel like they should go ahead and pay all that back,” Flory said.
All but two members voted to demand $60 million instead. One board member abstained, and the one who voted no later attempted to change her vote, saying she was against reducing the repayment amount and that she had wanted to demand $64 million. Board member Stephanie Dodd was a yes, and said the money needs to be returned. “It’s an overpayment, and I think it’s an unfortunate misuse of dollars and I think it’s best for it to be returned and for us to decide what to do with those dollars in the future,” Dodd said.
Several ECOT students, parents, staff and other supporters wanted to address the board. But they were held till after the vote, with the Department of Education saying they’d had time to make their case to the hearing officer when he was compiling his report.
Seven of them did speak, including 14-year-old Celia Aker, a five-year ECOT student. She said it’s unfair that the Ohio Department of Education requires that ECOT ensure students are online five hours a day, five days a week to satisfy the 920 hours per year of learning opportunities that the law says all schools must provide. “ECOT should not have to abide by the same rules as a brick-and-mortar school simply because they are two completely different platforms, though they have the same mission to teach students,” Aker said. “Once you get through that, ECOT and brick-and-mortar schools are completely different.”
The state has said that it found most ECOT students were online only one hour a day. After the meeting, board member Stephanie Dodd said she was listening to those ECOT supporters, but they didn’t change her mind. “I think it’s great that they are doing some of the wonderful things they’re doing, and I hope that we can maybe engage with them in conversations about how to expand that and maybe determine some best practices for other schools,” Dodd said. “But it doesn’t change the fact that the learning needs to be happening and needs to be documented, and that’s what’s required.”
ECOT spokesman Neil Clark said not allowing supporters to talk before the vote backs up the argument the school has been making from the beginning – that the Department of Education arbitrarily changes its rules and regulations: “Everything that I’ve seen so far has always been a continuation of our belief that ODE is broken and needs to be fixed.”
Rep. Andrew Brenner (R-Powell) is the House Education Committee chair, and one of two lawmakers who are non-voting members of the state school board. He’s also a supporter of ECOT. And though the battle between ECOT and the Department of Education has been going on for a year, Brenner said he thinks the board could have held off on its vote to allow time to look for more data to show what’s happening at the online school, which he said graduated 2,300 students this year. “The department on one hand is allowing them to give out diplomas, on the other hand they’re saying 60% of your students or whatever didn’t exist,” Brenner said. “So I kind of find that, they’re kind of talking out of both sides of their mouth there.”
The Department of Education’s report card on ECOT shows its graduation rate is just over 39%, while the public school graduation rate average for the state is just over 80%. The department’s legal counsel noted that ECOT had filed 11 objections to the hearing officer’s report, and that the case is still being heard in the court system. Clark says there will be more legal action to come, and he’s said ECOT won’t pay anything until the case is fully litigated all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court.