Online school’s future unclear

The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow is the biggest charter school, as measured by enrollment, in Ohio.

It is also in trouble. The Ohio Attorney General over the past year has been seeking return of $60 million from the all-online alternative education system under a claim that its enrollment figures have been inflated. The dispute has gone into the court system, with a district court in Franklin County finding in favor of the state and the case now appealed to the Supreme Court of Ohio.

Oral arguments will be heard in Columbus Feb. 13, according to the court docket.

The collapse of the system would affect more than 14,000 students across Ohio, including more than 50 in Washington County. One student in Marietta with concerns about the future of her education is Mariah Parks.

The 17-year-old senior is taking College Credit Plus courses through the online service and already has been accepted in the Ohio University pre-law and political science programs. She is due to receive her high school diploma in May.

Parks said she enrolled with ECOT in sixth grade after suffering from bullying in public school.

“I was attending Marietta Middle School and had some issues with bullying,” she said. “We looked at other schools but they were too far away, so we started looking at online education.”

ECOT sent her a pamphlet and she enrolled in December 2012.

After six years of learning through a virtual classroom system, she can’t think of a single drawback associated with attending ECOT, which she says is much like going to an ordinary school.

“You have certain times when you attend class — through a system like Skype –you go through lessons with the teacher and other students, and after that you have homework. You submit it as an electronic file through a dropbox kind of system,” she said.

She also has gotten to know her virtual classmates, although they are scattered across Ohio rather than being concentrated in her home community.

“They give you plenty of time to sit and talk to other students,” she said. “They encourage that, they want you to get along with each other.”

Parks said during the first few months she considered giving a brick-and-mortar school another try.

“When I was a younger child, I thought about going back because I missed the interaction with other kids,” she said.

But after that initial period she never looked back, and ECOT advocated for her when she wanted to continue attending events like dances and games at Marietta Middle School, she said.

She rates the teachers as excellent.

“We absolutely developed relationships, and I know they’re only one phone call away, even at four in the morning,” she said. “They’re definitely nice, and they have helped my education.”

ECOT has been in existence since 2000. It’s first graduating class of 21 students received diplomas in the spring of 2001. In 2016, the school conferred graduation on more than 2,500 students. The charter school was established to provide a more flexible education for students who for one reason or another were not succeeding in their local public schools. Some, like Parks, were having trouble with the social atmosphere, others could not adapt their schedules to regular hours, and some just required additional assistance, flexibility or an environment not available through the public system.

Charter schools such as ECOT receive state funding in a manner similar to public schools, but because ECOT is a statewide entity it is not supported by local property taxes. In the 2015-16 school year, ECOT submitted claims to the state for enrollment compensation for 15,000 students, an amount in excess of $100 million. In January 2016 ECOT was notified by the Ohio Department of Education that it would be subject to an FTE (full-time equivalent student) review, but unlike previous reviews, this one would include what is called “durational data,” the records from student log-in and log-out times that would show how much time each student spent online with classes and studies.

ECOT filed a lawsuit in July 2016. The Franklin County Court of Common Pleas rejected ECOT’s action to stop the state from requiring durational data to use for determining the school’s funding. The court found against the school, and an appeal to the district court was rejected.

An appeal to the 10th Appellate Court was filed in July 2017, in which ECOT sought to have the county court decision reversed and asked for injunctive relief against having to provide durational data to the ODOE, claiming that the demand for keeping and supplying that data violated the state’s administrative rules and was a violation of the statute governing the funding of community schools. ECOT argued that its enrollment figures were related to “documented learning opportunities” rather than actual time spent logged into classes by individual students. The appellate court rejected the argument.

In July 2017 ECOT filed a motion for an emergency injunction with the Ohio Supreme Court, which was denied, but the court on Dec. 29 scheduled oral arguments on the merits of the case for Feb. 23. The injunctive relief sought by ECOT was not granted, which means the school’s funding crisis continues to loom. In one filing for injunctive relief Oct. 17, ECOT indicated it could close as soon as January.

The state in its response to the filing for injunctive relief argued that it would recover the money it claims ECOT owes, not by demanding the return of the funds but rather by reducing the monthly amount it pays ECOT for its services until the balance is cleared, at the rate of $2.5 million a month for 24 months. The state also claimed that the nonprofit at that time had cash reserves of $17 million and concluded it was not in danger of going bust.

The state alleges in its response that ECOT does not have an effective way of tracking attendance of students and in the 2014-2015 school year reported a five-year graduation rate of just over 44 percent. ECOT has said it has a higher proportion of students considered to be at risk of dropping out than most schools, which explains the low graduation rate.

The state also noted that provisions for durational data were included in its review manuals starting in 2010, although it did not start using those provisions until 2016 after discovering discrepancies at four community schools. ECOT was not one of those schools.

The state also argued that although ECOT is a nonprofit, it does business with two for-profit companies owned by its founder, William Lager, that in 2015 amounted to 20 percent of its state funding. The businesses are Altair Learning Management Systems, which is the ECOT operating entity, and IQ Innovations, from which it licenses proprietary software, the state’s filing said.

Students with ECOT do not pay tuition, and ECOT provides hardware equipment, the internet connection and study materials at no cost to the student.

Andrew Brush, a Columbus businessman who is president of ECOT’s board, said Thursday that if the e-school closes, its students would have to search for other options, but for some the e-school might be their final hope.

“ECOT is the last, best chance for some of our high school students, and it would be really unfortunate if this option was no longer on the table for those kids,” he said.

If ECOT loses its case it may bode ill for other online schools, he said.

“When I think about the set of circumstances that might close ECOT, I worry about the long-term implications for other e-schools in our state,” he said. “Really, for my part, it’s all about choice and people having options. The traditional school does not work for everybody, and likewise online school is not for everybody. We have a robust educational marketplace in Ohio, and anything that results in fewer choices” will harm that, he said.

Marietta student Mariah Parks said she believes in having alternatives like ECOT.

“I’m definitely concerned,” Parks said. “I want to graduate and finish out with them. I really do think it’s a great place, and I don’t want that opportunity to be taken away from people in a situation like mine where they’re being bullied and have nowhere to go.”

At a glance

Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow

¯ Enrollment: 14,000 students.

¯ Rank among Ohio charter schools for size: No. 1.

¯ Supreme Court Case: 2017-0931, Ohio Attorney General vs ECOT.

¯ Date by which the school says it will reach negative operating cash flow: March 2018.

¯ Date of next court action: Feb. 13, oral arguments on the merits, Ohio Supreme Court

Sources: Ohio Supreme Court documents, Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.