As the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, ECOT, continues trying to duck accountability, a finding against two other shuttered charter schools underscores the need for vigilance and persistence on the part of Ohio Department of Education auditors.
Two Columbus academies overcharged the state at least $62,211. An ODE review of student data found that the Talented Tenth Leadership Academy for Boys and the Talented Tenth Leadership Academy for Girls was not eligible for most of the $80,000 it had received in state foundation payments because — wait for it — enrollments didn’t meet state minimums. Other charter schools in Ohio this year also have been told to repay excess state aid for inflated enrollment.
Provost Academy, a Columbus-based online charter, agreed to return $800,000 of the $1 million received for the 2014-15 school year; an ODE review found 32 full-time students, not the 155 the school reported. And Lakewood Digital Academy of Hebron was told to repay $150,000 after the state found 16 full-time students, not the 57 claimed.
In the case of the Talented Tenth schools, prosecutors called their founder a con man. Andre Tucker, sentenced in November for stealing $7,500 from the schools, was ordered to repay the money and given five years of probation.
But his circumstances — he was an employee of the schools’ sponsor, the North Central Ohio Educational Service Center — underscored Ohio’s lack of oversight of charter schools. Until legislative reforms took effect earlier this year, for-profit charter school operators could control their school board and sponsor-overseers had conflicts of interests, including selling their schools services.
The reform bill ended this, but only after Ohio had become a national laughingstock for its “ Wild-West” system of charter-school accountability. Now, a move is rumored to be afoot — reportedly led by ECOT, whose founder is a generous donor to Republican Statehouse campaigns — to dilute the new charter-school standards. The fear is that legislators later this year will allow online schools to be paid merely for offering 920 instructional hours a year, as if signing up students equates to educating them.
Meanwhile, ECOT appears to be trying to run out the clock in a protracted court fight to prevent the Education Department from looking at its attendance data. The state wishes to make sure that ECOT’s 15,000 students are getting an education, a required minimum of 920 hours a year, before forking over another $106 million in taxpayer funding.
ECOT, in fact, has the dubious distinction of being the leader of the nation’s school dropout factories, according to federal data. For every 100 students who graduate on time, 80 do not, The New York Times reported in May.
In the latest twist, ECOT — after much stalling — handed over student attendance records to the state. But it almost immediately demanded the records back, claiming that those records illegally contain student names. Names were stamped in a watermark across ECOT-supplied printed pages. Now, ECOT argues the state is breaking the law by having these documents that it supplied.
But surely ECOT is at fault for supplying records in a form that made it impossible to redact the names and allow a state audit.
The school’s leader already has said that if the state is allowed to see its records, it might have to close. The surmise is ECOT might have to return tens of millions of dollars. That’s honest. At least he isn’t in the same league as the convicted Talented Tenth “con man”; he only gamed the system for tens of thousands of dollars.Editorial: Attendance key to accountability | The Columbus Dispatch: