Hold charters accountable

Ohio taxpayers deserve to know that their education dollars are going to help kids, not create a cash cow for online charter schools that — having collected state payments based on enrollment — don’t bother to track whether students actually are attending and learning.

Calling for “common sense,” Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni, D-Boardman, has introduced a bill to hold e-schools accountable for ensuring students are actually being educated.

This legislation would hold charter schools to basic standards and convey that the days of the state tolerating their sloppy recordkeeping and lackadaisical attitude toward mission are over: Comply or face an accounting and repayment for kids who aren’t logging on.

“If you’re not there, and there’s a pattern of you not being there, then there’s repercussions for your actions,” Schiavoni said of his new legislation.

Ohio sends charter schools about $1 billion a year, including the $275 million that goes to educate 39,000 students at online schools. It’s natural for taxpayers to wonder if this money is being wasted after a state audit found overpayments at two smaller online charters.

The first, Provost Academy, received roughly $1 million in the 2014-15 school year for educating 162 students. But when the Ohio Department of Education checked, Provost could document that only 35 full-time students had fulfilled their minimum-hour requirements.

In a recorded phone call last year, a vice president of Provost’s for-profit operator said, “At the end of the day, we have two-thirds to maybe 80 percent of our kids who are not attending school much at all.”

Provost will have to return almost $800,000.

The second problem, revealed last week, involves Akron Digital Academy, which got nearly $3 million in state aid for 400 students this year. Again, the Education Department found the school couldn’t document that kids were doing minimal classwork.

If Ohio’s other online charter schools had similar problems, the amount of money overpaid could easily surpass $200 million.

That’s money deducted from the district schools where the student would have attended, so all kids are being shorted: E-students aren’t being monitored and kept on track to prevent failing; and children in conventional schools got less funding.

“This e-school issue has the potential to be much larger than just Provost,” Schiavoni said.

The provisions of his bill include requiring schools to keep accurate records of the time students participate in coursework and report that data monthly to the state; mandating notification of the state, parents/guardians and the student’s home school district if a student fails to log in for 10 consecutive days; requiring monthly checks of student-participation logs by a qualified teacher; and creating a commission to study the costs of running e-schools.

This bill would continue Ohio’s progress in strengthening oversight of charter schools, after years as a national laughingstock.

A package of reforms took effect on Feb. 1, but efforts to undermine this new accountability continue at the Statehouse. Online charter-school interests reportedly are trying to legalize this attendance shell game by slipping it into a different piece of legislation. The schools want credit — and money — for offering at least 900 hours of instruction to each student enrolled, regardless of whether students actually participate in those hours.

That’s preposterous, and the idea should be rejected out of hand. Schiavoni’s bill would put an end to this nonsense. If e-schools truly care about kids learning, they’d enact these measures themselves.
The Columbus Dispatch, Tuesday March 29, 2016 5:40 AM
Hold charters accountable