Student Login Records at Ohio E-Schools Spark $80 Million Dispute

Source: Benjamin Herold and Alex Harwin, Education Week, March 7, 2017

The Ohio education department could seek repayment of more than $80 million from nine full-time online schools, based on audits of software-login records that led state officials to determine the schools had overstated their student enrollment. The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, for example, was paid for 15,322 full-time students during the 2015-16 school year. But state officials said they could document just 41 percent of that total. An Education Week analysis of both the login records submitted by ECOT and the results of the state’s audit for that year further demonstrates the scope of the discrepancy: Under Ohio law, schools are expected to offer students 920 hours of learning. But for the average ECOT student, state officials were able to document just 227 hours spent using the school’s learning software, Education Week’s review found. …


Online charter school loses state attendance audit appeal
Source: Associated Press, December 15, 2016

A judge will allow Ohio’s education department to review attendance records that could force Ohio’s largest online charter to return millions of its funding. Franklin County Judge Jenifer French on Thursday finalized a ruling against the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, or ECOT. The decision rejects a request by ECOT to block the state from requiring the school provide log-in durations as a way of measuring how many students attend the school. The state said has said that ECOT’s enrollment is nearly 60 percent lower than originally reported, potentially jeopardizing about $60 million in state funding from last year. …

ECOT online charter school appeals two rulings that threaten $60 million in funding
Source: Patrick O’Donnell, Cleveland Plain-Dealer, October 11, 2016 (Appeal available at bottom of article)

The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) has filed appeals with both the Ohio Department of Education and an appeals court to challenge rulings that threaten more than $60 million of its state funding. Neither appeal offers much detail of the online charter school’s case, but they start procedures to block the state from recovering money paid to the school last year because it cannot document how much time its students spent on their classes.

ECOT attendance inflated by 9,000 students, audit finds; $60 million in state funding in jeopardy
Source: Patrick O’Donnell, Cleveland Plain-Dealer, September 26, 2016

Ohio’s largest online charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), was paid for 9,000 more students than it should have last school year, an Ohio Department of Education enrollment audit has found. In a letter to the school today, the department tells the school that it has proper documentation for only 6,300 of its 15,300 students – a 59% gap. The letter does not spell out how much money ECOT could be forced to return, but with ECOT receiving $109 million last year for the 15,300, $64 million in money is at risk. … A ruling from Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Jennifer French later this week could make the audit irrelevant. French heard a week of testimony earlier this month on an ECOT challenge of the audit and the ways the state is counting enrollment. … At issue is whether ECOT must only show that students have enrolled and that they log on, however briefly, to avoid truancy violations and to receive full state funding for each student. The state has been seeking proof that students are spending more than one hour a day online, as early reviews showed,  Because the school in the past has not had to provide documentation of the work that its students do, school leaders have said it’s unfair to expect the documentation retroactively for the just-finished 2015-16 school year. …

Ohio says ECOT charter school may owe taxpayers $60 million
Source: Julie Carr Smyth, Akron Beacon Journal, September 26, 2016

A state review has found that enrollment at Ohio’s largest online charter school is nearly 60 percent lower than originally reported, potentially jeopardizing about $60 million of the e-school’s state funding from last year. The Ohio Department of Education told the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow about its findings Monday. It comes amid a legal battle over how head counts for the school and other online schools in Ohio are determined. … About 500 school-age children who would otherwise enroll in a Summit County school district are registered at ECOT. ECOT receives about $5,900 per student, meaning nearly $3 million is taken from local school districts, which generate their funds from local tax levies and state aid. … If the state audit is accurate, ECOT may be claiming funding of $3 million in the Akron-Canton area for hundreds of unsubstantiated student time. ECOT is managed by Altair Learning Management, a for-profit company whose executives are among the biggest Republican donors in the state. The school tried to block regulators’ access to student log-in and log-out information, charging the education department imposed illegal retroactive rules on it for counting students. …

Ohio legislature might delve into e-school attendance
Source: Jim Siegel, The Columbus Dispatch, September 19, 2016

When legislators return to the Statehouse in November, a mess awaits them in the form of an ongoing fight over ensuring that online charter schools are paid only for students who are actually enrolled. … Many people also want to see how legislators will react to the Department of Education’s effort to require e-schools to produce data on log-in durations as a basis for how much the schools should get in state funding. The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, a school that gets more than $100 million per year in state taxpayer dollars and is run by a major GOP donor, is suing to block the department from asking for log-in records. A preliminary review in March found that ECOT students logged in for about an hour per day. The log-in records are a new requirement for online schools to show that students are getting the state-mandated 920 hours of “learning opportunities” for funding purposes. ECOT and a number of other e-schools are struggling to produce adequate data. … For traditional public schools in Ohio, funding is based on enrollment, not attendance. ECOT argues that under the law, a student could log in for as little as a minute per day to earn full per-pupil funding. But Tom Ash of the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, said a student in a traditional school could not get away with that: leaving after first period would make a student truant, which could eventually land the student in juvenile court. …

Education Insider: ECOT fears impact on enrollment if Ohio finds school overbilled
Source: Bill Bush and Mary Mogan Edwards, Columbus Dispatch, September 7, 2016

Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel’s shows that the state paid only eight companies more in the most-recent full fiscal year than the $114 million ECOT got. The eight include health-care giants UnitedHealth Group and Medical Mutual and pharmacy-benefit manager Catamaran OptumRx, plus AEP’s Ohio Power Co. and a few huge highway-construction firms. Although ECOT is a public school, not a company, that’s still pretty big. … He also made clear in the filing that for the past 13 years, the state had never tried to figure out “actual ‘participation’ criterion” of ECOT students in return for handing the school so much money. So imagine ECOT’s surprise when, this year, the state actually tried to figure out whether ECOT students were participating in schoolwork, as we speculate might be a requirement of the state’s compulsory education laws. As Dispatch reporter Jim Siegel reported Monday, the department seemed as if it were going to cave in again after ECOT lobbyist Neil Clark complained at a meeting with officials from the department, the legislature and the governor’s office in February that ECOT wasn’t equipped to provide the participation data. The department indicated at the meeting that it was prepared to delay a once-every-five-years attendance audit by another year. …

State Says More Ohio Online Charter Schools Can’t Document Their Student Numbers
Source: Andy Chow, WKSU, August 29, 2016

For weeks, the state has been battling with its largest online charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow or ECOT, over how it records the number of hours its more than 15,000 students spend learning. Those hours are critical to the funding of ECOT and all charter schools. Now, three more online charters have received letters from the Ohio Department of Education detailing issues with the way they track student instruction. The challenge for these e-schools is to document and record each individual student and how much time they spend “in school” participating in learning opportunities. … The Buckeye Online School for Success or BOSS uses what’s known as a bell schedule. A student has to log-in for each class during the day and if that student misses a class they can log-in later to see what they’ve missed. But ODE says BOSS doesn’t have software to accumulate learning opportunity hours by day, month and year. The same goes for the Quaker Digital Academy. The Virtual Community School or VCS offers 41 programs for students to use to learn but according to the state, only two of those programs track the hours and one relies on parental documentation. Aldis says these reviews show that e-schools are still in the early stages of figuring out how to measure up to the state’s standards on attendance. …

Struggle with ECOT nothing new for Ohio education administrators
Source: Jim Siegel, Catherine Candisky, and Bill Bush, Columbus Dispatch, August 14, 2016

Today’s legal battle potentially involving hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars paid to online charter schools in Ohio began more than 15 years ago with an audit, an unusual agreement and a mysterious scrawled signature — followed by years of legislative inaction. … Back in 2002, state officials weren’t thinking about checking for 920 hours of attendance or tracking students’ computer log-in durations. Few rules and regulations governed new online schools, and attendance concerns were much more basic: Were students getting computers and could they actually log into the fledgling Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow’s system? ECOT resisted the department’s efforts. Some arguments were similar to ones made today as the Education Department tries to verify that ECOT students are getting the minimum 920 hours of “learning opportunities” required by the state, and the school sues to block use of that data for funding purposes. … The illegible signature belongs to David Varda, then associate superintendent at the Ohio Department of Education, who signed the odd funding agreement with ECOT in January 2003. Little did he know it would impact attendance audits of the school for years to come and become the centerpiece of a lawsuit filed by ECOT in July, which claims the agreement prohibits the department from using log-in durations to determine funding. …

Dave Yost wants Ohio to reform how online charter schools are paid
Source: Catherine Candisky, Columbus Dispatch, August 11, 2016

Ohio’s e-schools should be funded based on what their students learn rather than attendance or time spent online, Auditor Dave Yost proposed Thursday. … Yost’s remarks come as the state’s largest e-school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, is embroiled in a legal battle with the Department of Education over efforts to audit its attendance to ensure students are participating in the minimum 920 hours of “learning opportunities” required each year to obtain state funding. A Franklin County judge rejected ECOT’s request to block the audit, and last week ordered the school to turn over attendance records, including student computer login durations. A preliminary audit in March found that most ECOT students were logging in for only about an hour per day, education officials said. … Yost said tax dollars should pay for what the state is trying to buy: “A citizen who can read and write and do the math and, most of all, who can think, and that can’t be produced just by time in chair.” Yost asked the GOP-controlled legislature to take up the issue when lawmakers return to the Statehouse this fall. …

Ohio Wins Its Fight to Force Charter School ECOT to Hand Over Data
Source: Andy Chow, WKSU, August 2, 2016

The state’s education department won a major battle over the attendance fight with ECOT, Ohio’s largest online charter school. A judge says ECOT must hand over the log-in information of its 15,000 students in order for ODE to conduct its attendance audit. ECOT’s Neil Clark says log-in data is not an accurate way to tally student instruction per day. …

ECOT ordered to turn over attendance data to state
Source: Candace Candisky & Jim Siegel, Columbus Dispatch, August 2, 2016

A Franklin County judge ordered Ohio’s largest online charter school on Monday to turn over attendance data sought by the state Department of Education. Common Pleas Judge Jenifer A. French gave ECOT until 5 p.m. today to comply. “These documents shall include, but are not limited to, spreadsheets showing the log-in and log-out data of the ECOT students randomly identified by (the education department),” French wrote in a two-page order. … The education department wants the records to complete a routine attendance audit used to determine whether students are getting the minimum 920 hours of “learning opportunities” required by the state. The order marks the second ruling against ECOT since the online school sued the state last month in an effort to block the audit, arguing that using log-in durations violates the law and a 2003 agreement signed by the school and the department. Attendance counts play a key role in determining how much state funding a school gets. …

Ohio’s fight against its largest online school continues
Source: Molly Reed, WKBN, July 26, 2016

The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) is still refusing to release records to the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) for an attendance audit. The ODE said it wants students’ log-in and log-out times to determine the funding ECOT receives from the state. The ODE wants this information to see if students are actually getting the 920 hours required in online charter schools, which became a law in February of this year. But, ECOT said this violates a 2003 contract with the ODE on keeping track of attendance through just log-in times. … ECOT’s consultant Neil Clark said the system Ohio wants ECOT to follow just won’t work. He said the system of having a teacher sign off on students’ participation is more efficient than using the state’s system, which would have a parent sign off. … Stacey Fisher has a daughter who used to be an ECOT student, but she is enrolling her back into a traditional school in the fall because of ECOT’s system. … The ODE also wants the login in durations so it can determine if the $108 million it paid ECOT in 2015-16 was inflated. That money is based on the amount of students enrolled in the school. Saturday, the state asked a judge in Columbus to have ECOT give records for 1,500 students, randomly picked by the ODE, to show the state how ECOT tracks their schoolwork. …

Ohio Lawmakers Call for Charter School Changes Following ECOT Controversy
Source: Karen Kasler, WKSU, July 13, 2016

The Ohio Department of Education has started its audit of student attendance at the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow after a judge denied ECOT’s request to stop that audit. But questions about the laws that govern charter schools have supporters and opponents once again calling for changes. The Ohio Department of Education’s audit seeks to determine if the nearly 15,000 students that ECOT claims are enrolled are getting the 920 hours of learning for which the state is paying ECOT more than $100 million a year. ECOT had claimed that if the audit went forward, the school might have to close because of a significant loss of funding – and ECOT says that could happen because the state is changing the rules that under which it is audited. … The education department says in its response to ECOT’s lawsuit that the school’s required to document students’ log-in and participation, and said an early review of ECOT’s records found most students logged on for only an hour a day – not five.  While the judge’s order allows the state audit to go forward, ECOT says it’s still pursuing its lawsuit. It argues that the five hour per day log-in requirement for online charter school students is not in state law. …

Online Charter School Sues To Stop Attendance Audit Just Days Before Its Scheduled Start
Source: Karen Kasler, WOSU, July 11, 2016

The state’s largest and most controversial online charter school has sued to block the state from a delayed attendance audit that was supposed to start today, and could end up costing it millions of dollars. The lawsuit seeks to stop the Department of Education from auditing the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, or ECOT – an audit that had been scheduled for February, then put off till mid-June, then set to start today. These audits are done every five years to determine if student enrollment matches the number of students for which the state pays the charter to educate – money that comes from traditional public schools. Longtime lobbyist Neil Clark is a consultant for ECOT, which he says since 2003 has had a contract with ODE on how audits will be done. He said ODE now wants to change that process, including checking that students log in for at least five hours a day, which he says isn’t spelled out in state law. … ECOT claims nearly 15,000 students are enrolled, which would make it larger than all but eight public school districts. The Ohio Department of Education hasn’t responded to ECOT’s lawsuit, but has said in a statement that the agency is committed to completing its regulatory duty to review attendance at all charter schools and ensure that all charter schools are getting appropriate funding. At least two schools have had to give back hundreds of thousands in state funds after fewer students were found than were claimed.