ECOT loses court appeal as e-schools ask legislature to excuse giant attendance issues
COLUMBUS, Ohio - ECOT, Ohio's largest online school, has lost a court appeal that would have blocked the state from trying to"claw back" as much as $65 million the school received last year, while e-schools across Ohio are asking state legislators to protect their funding.
The schools are asking state legislators to add a "hold harmless" provision to another bill in the next few weeks to stop the state from using attendance reviews of the schools to take millions of dollars of state funding away from them.
Nine other online charter schools could also have to return portions of their state funding after they could not meet new state expectations for documenting how many students they have taking classes.
House Education Committee Chairman Andrew Brenner said schools have asked to be excused from penalties while legislators debate a better way to fund online schools next year.
"There's been a couple of discussions, but nothing is concrete," said Brenner, a Powell Republican..
"This is an issue that's more widespread than just ECOT," he added. "This impacts a ton of schools. It something we've got to have a good conversation on."
The e-schools are also appealing the attendance reviews to the state school board.
ECOT, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, will start hearings Monday for that administrative appeal before a hearing officer, who will present his findings to the full state school board.
At issue is how the state funds online charter schools - schools in which students take classes entirely online and usually from home. In the past, the state has required schools to show only that they provide students a computer and that they offer classes to students.
So long as a student logs on periodically to avoid being declared truant, the state paid the schools more than $6,000 per student each year without tracking how long students spent online or what lessons they completed.
That changed this year when the Ohio Department of Education started demanding data showing how much time students spend online. That meant that students could no longer just be offered classes, but had to take them.
The Ohio Department of Education and ECOT, the state's biggest e-school, had a fight in court this week over attendance records. Here's what's at stake.For ECOT, the state found that it had documentation of online time for just 6,300 of its 15,300 students. That left 9,000 students without proper documentation and put more than $60 million of ECOT's state funding for 2015-16 at risk.
The state also ordered Provost Academy in Columbus to repay $800,000 after finding that it had the equivalent of just 35 full-time students, not the 160 it had claimed. And it found that Akron Digital Academy could not document 80% of its students and that the Buckeye Online School for Success could not document any of its 900 students.
ECOT challenged the new expectations in Franklin County Common Pleas Court as unfair and retroactive, but Judge Jennifer French disagreed. She denied ECOT's request to stop the state's attendance review and any attempts to recover money.
ECOT then appealed French's ruling to the 10th Ohio district appeals court, which rejected ECOT's appeal on Nov. 22.
Judges Susan Brown and Lisa Adler dismissed the appeal, saying they did not have the power to overturn French's ruling because it's a temporary one. Because the state has not issued an order for ECOT to return any money and ECOT is still free to challenge any such order before French, French's ruling is not a final one.
That makes French's ruling out of the appeals court's jurisdiction to decide, the judges found.
Judge Jennifer Brunner dissented with no comment.
Orders to return money would come from the state school board, who will have to decide what to do after receiving reports from hearing officers. Ohio Department of Education spokesperson Brittany Halpin did not have dates for all appeal hearings, but said several of the affected schools have applied.
ECOT spokesman Neil Clark said the school still believes that the Ohio Department of Education "created new rules for e-schools and then applied the new rules retroactively."
He added: "No targeted e-school was able to meet ODE's new demands because no school was prepared to comply with rules that didn't exist. Meanwhile, ODE continues to hold e-schools to more stringent attendance standards than bricks-and-mortar schools."
Judge French had ruled, however, that the state has had authority since at least 2010 to request data on how long students spent online.
"The Court finds that ECOT cannot claim to have been unfairly surprised when ODE requested such data," French ruled in September.
Whether any attempt in the legislature to prevent any harm from the audits will gain support is unclear. The "hold harmless" request has not been discussed widely in the state Senate, said the spokesmen for both Republican and Democratic leadership.
John Fortney, spokesman for Republican Senate leadership, said members expect to discuss e-school funding next year but he doubts there would be strong support for throwing out the attendance audits.
And Mike Rowe, spokesman for Democratic leaders in the Senate, said his members would be against giving ECOT and others a pass.
"I don't think our members would be very receptive to that at all," he said. "Would they be allowed to escape with $60 million that doesn't belong to them?"
He added: "We know these kids weren't being educated. I can't imagine just letting them off the hook."ECOT loses court appeal as e-schools ask legislature to excuse giant attendance issues | cleveland.com: