New Legislature, governor must put focus on e-schools


Columbus Dispatch: Ohio has spent years shoring up regulation and oversight of its charter schools, trying to clean up the mess created by the campaign-donor-friendly, anything-goes approach that marked the origin of charter schools in the state.

One area that remains a mess is funding and accountability for e-schools, so it’s encouraging that lawmakers appear poised to pay it some attention this year. A joint House/Senate committee on e-school funding formed in November; here’s hoping the work will continue in the new year and new administration of Gov. Mike DeWine because there are plenty of questions to consider.

The primary one is how to fairly determine how many students an e-school actually is serving and thus how much it is entitled to in taxpayer dollars. The original method – paying e-schools full freight for every student who enrolled – was absurd and led directly to millions of misspent tax dollars.

The most notorious case, of course, was that of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, which long billed taxpayers for thousands of students without any evidence that many of them actually logged in or completed assignments. For years, the Department of Education required only that e-schools prove they had offered 920 hours of instruction in a school year, the same number of hours as traditional schools – not that individual students “attended” for that long.

When the department finally began demanding proof that students actually had engaged in education via their ECOT computers, the school cried foul, saying the state had changed the rules mid-game. A Franklin County Common Pleas judge disagreed; though ECOT pursued the case to the Ohio Supreme Court, it lost at all levels and was ordered to give back more than $80 million.

No tears need be shed for ECOT founder Bill Lager, who greased politicians with millions in campaign contributions and went from broke to multimillionaire thanks to ECOT, while students languished and mostly didn’t graduate. But the fight did highlight the real difficulty of quantifying online education.

ECOT lobbyist Neil Clark wasn’t wrong when he told The Dispatch, “In a new world, when you’re talking about e-schools, you can’t look at it where everybody has to be in their chair.”


HOW TO ACHIEVE ACCOUNTABILITY

What should we count, then? Simply adding up time logged in, as the state is doing now, is subject to failure in either direction. A student obviously can stay logged in, and stroke a few keys every once in a while to appear active, without really doing any work. Conversely, a student could be reading, writing or otherwise completing schoolwork but not have it counted because he is offline.

The staff of former state auditor Dave Yost, who has been sworn in as attorney general, studied the problem in detail last year and issued a little-noticed report.

Along with the pro-charter-school Fordham Institute, Yost’s report suggests that e-schools could be funded based on performance, as measured by a student’s competence or mastery of subject matter.

The report also points out the need for consistency and clarity in Department of Education policies and rules for e-schools. Whatever standards and rules are adopted, they should be clear to everyone and uniformly enforced; to date, the report says, department employees were unaware of requirements and often applied them incorrectly.

If lawmakers ever propose funding e-schools according to how many students pass tests, school operators no doubt will protest that brick-and-mortar schools get funded regardless of how well their students perform. That’s true, but only to a point; under state accountability standards, schools with chronic poor performance face dire consequences, including closure (for charter schools) and state takeover (for traditional schools).

The stronger argument, though, is that e-schools actually should be treated differently. Traditional brick-and-mortar schools operate under significant state regulation, and the means exist to know that their students are attending and participating. When a student is present but not engaged, a teacher is expected to notice and try to engage him.

E-schools shouldn’t expect to receive equivalent taxpayer support without some demonstration of their service. As long as it remains impossible to observe and track students’ engagement, basing funding at least partly on students’ output may be the only realistic option.

We hope the House and Senate education committees will have solutions to propose for the state budget due in June.