Virtual Charter School Pins Survival Hopes on Ohio Justices

COLUMBUS, Ohio (CN) – The fate of one of the nation’s largest online charter schools is now in the hands of the Ohio Supreme Court, after the school urged justices on Tuesday to reverse the state’s demand to claw back $60 million in funding based on lack of student participation.

Closed in January, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, or ECOT, is in limbo, leaving hundreds of teachers and thousands of students looking for a new school midway through the school year. Its hopes of survival depend on a favorable Ohio Supreme Court ruling after its sponsor, Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, said that it would run out of money in March.

The Ohio Department of Education argues that the school, founded 18 years ago, has not justified the millions of dollars taxpayers churned into the school, and in 2016 created stricter regulations that included log-on times so it could measure if students at the school were doing the state minimum of 920 hours school work.

ECOT maintains that the education department unlawfully enacted the change under state laws for charter schools when it yanked $60 million in funding, and should have focused its attention on enrollment rather than attendance.

At a Tuesday morning hearing before the Ohio Supreme Court, ECOT’s attorney Marion Little accused the state of a double standard, arguing that traditional brick and mortar schools receive funding based on enrollment and online charter schools should too.

It did not escape the attention of the court when Little argued that enrollment is measured by how often a student logs on to the ECOT platform rather than the duration they are online working. That meant that if a student logged on to the school only once per month, the state should consider him enrolled for the purposes of funding, Little said.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor wondered if by that rationale it was even necessary for a student to go to class.

“Isn’t there an obligation on the part of the student to be present in class in order to justify the use of taxpayer money on a per-capita basis?” a skeptical O’Connor asked.

“There is an expectation for all students, mortar schools and e-school alike, that students will attend, but that is not a focus of funding. It’s not a focus of funding in the community schools. It’s not a focus of funding in the brick and mortar schools. It never has been. At least until 2016,” Little said.

Arguing for the Ohio Department of Education, attorney Douglas Cole accused ECOT of rewriting state laws to further its own “policy preferences.”

He said ECOT was asking the court to come to the “absurd” conclusion that even if a student logs on for just a few minutes over a 30-day period, the school was entitled to full funding, even if the student did not receive “even one minute” of meaningful education.

“As we all know as a matter of common sense, in terms of students getting educated, duration does matter,” Cole said. “That’s why I say they’re asking this court to adopt an absurd result in trying to completely divorce funding from this question of are the students actually there.”

Based in Columbus, ECOT has blamed the state’s abrupt action in withholding funding for its recent closure. Founded in 2000, ECOT was the state’s first and largest e-school and a viable alternative for students who wanted to avoid traditional schools because of bullying, disabilities, poverty or other issues. Students would log on to their computers and chat with teachers by email and on the school web-based platform. In spring 2015, the school graduated more than 2,300 students.

But in the state’s report card for 2016 to 2017, ECOT scored an F for graduation rates, with 46 percent of students graduating in five years. The state average was 83.6 percent.

In the 2015-2016 school year, ECOT enrolled close to 15,000 students. Under a funding agreement with the state, the school was to make available 920 hours of “learning opportunities” for students each school year.

The state reviewed the school’s performance in 2016 and wanted information on student participation numbers, including how often students were logged on to the school’s platform.

ECOT failed to win a court injunction to block the state’s request. The information revealed that the school had inflated its enrollment, according to a Court News Ohio report on the case. A string of legal defeats in the case led to ECOT’s appeal at the Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Chief Justice O’Connor appeared to be warming to the state’s argument when she pressed Little to explain how the school could claim full funding if a student logs on for less than a minute every 30 days.

“How is that not absurd?” O’Connor asked.

“There are other ways of testing whether a community school is discharging its responsibility,” Little said. “We make a distinction between how is funding done than how are schools evaluated.”

The court took the case under consideration and did not indicate when it will rule.

The hearing came a day after the Ohio school board voted to claw back $19.02 million from the virtual school, adding to the $60 million the state wants ECOT to repay.

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