In this May, 2017 photo, hundreds of supporters of Ohio's largest online charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow or ECOT, participate in a rally outside the Statehouse in Columbus.
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COLUMBUS — Maumee-based Ohio Virtual Academy and its sponsor are asking lawmakers to provide a “safe harbor” from potentially poor academic performance by students who transferred from the now-shuttered Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.
The Senate Education Committee on Wednesday is expected to consider an amendment proposed to House Bill 21, which passed the House unanimously in December. The bill shifts responsibility for tracking the residency of online charter school students from the home district to the e-school.
The amendment — offered by a lobbyist for K12, Inc., the academy’s for-profit manager — would exclude the academic performance of ECOT transfers when it comes to evaluating the performance of the charter school’s sponsor, the Ohio Council of Community Schools, this year and next.
“It is our intention to only apply this exemption for students enrolling as juniors and seniors,” lobbyist Andrew Minton told the committee in April.
Current law states that a charter school deemed failing for two out of three years can be closed by the Department of Education. The proposed amendment states that any charter school whose enrollment has expanded by more than 20 percent because of ECOT transfers shall not be considered for closure unless it has been deemed failing for all three years.
Mr. Minton told the committee that the Ohio Virtual Academy has accepted 4,200 former ECOT students, hiring more teachers to accommodate them. He said the cost was $1,400 per student, or a total of $5.9 million.
“With over 4,200 new enrollees, it is clear that many of these students rely on an e-school education and, more importantly, they still have a school of choice,” he said.
ECOT closed its doors in January at the halfway point of the current school year after its Toledo-based sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, pulled its sponsorship. The closing sent some 12,000 students scrambling to find other learning options.
Last week state Auditor Dave Yost asked federal and state investigators to consider criminal fraud charges against ECOT, saying it intentionally misled the state as to its true enrollment in order to collect millions in per-pupil subsidies to which it was not entitled.
Brianne Kramer, a former Ohio Virtual Academy adviser and now an assistant professor at Southern Utah University, previously raised questions about how promptly the charter school had removed students considered truant from its own enrollment figures. She was laid off at the school three years ago.
“If Ohio Virtual is able to get away with not having these ECOT students on their books while they acclimate from their old school, why aren’t public schools getting the same consideration?” asked Ms. Kramer, formerly of Fort Jennings, Putnam County.
“ECOT closed at the end of January, and all of those students had to go somewhere,” she said. “How is that fair?”
State Rep. Steve Hambley (R., Brunswick), sponsor of House Bill 21, said he’s on board with the proposed changes.
“It’s not the original intent of the bill, which dealt with community schools and verifying residency, shifting the burden from the public schools to community schools, where it needs to be,” he said. “I’m supportive of [the amendment] because of that situation. It’s a tragedy no matter how you look at it. We have to make sure schools aren’t harmed, as well as the students, for no fault of their own.”
But state Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), ranking Democrat on the House Education and Career Readiness Committee, said she will not support it again if comes back from the Senate with the amendment attached.
“Here we are now, another for-profit online charter school, the Ohio Virtual Academy, with their sponsor, Ohio Council of Community Schools, attempting to use their influence to carve out more money with less oversight on the back of the ECOT scandal,” she said. “That in and of itself is another scandal.”
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