When taxpayers fund school operating levies, they may assume the money goes to schools in their communities.
But when students in our Amherst, Oberlin, and Wellington coverage areas leave for charter schools, local and state taxpayer money follows them — on average, roughly $5,800 per student.
Some is going to an online charter school with the highest dropout rate in the nation.
The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow’s website said it has over 10,000 graduates since forming in 2000. However, the school’s 44 percent graduation rate over five years gives it the highest dropout rate in Ohio and the U.S., according to the New York Times, which analyzed federal data.
In the 2015-2016 school year, 12 Amherst students attended ECOT, which works out to $69,600 in funding leaving the district. In Oberlin it was 20 students costing $116,000. In Wellington, it was 17 students and $98,600.
ECOT’s four-year graduation rate is 39 percent, compared to the Ohio average of 83 percent. Amherst’s rate last year was nearly 92 percent. Oberlin’s was 86 percent. Wellington’s was 89 percent.
In fact, if ECOT were a public school measured alongside Ohio’s 700 traditional districts, it would be ranked in the bottom half-percent of performers.
The Times also reported that taxpayer money is going to companies owned by ECOT founder William Lager. It said in 2014, companies associated with Lager received nearly $23 million sent to them by ECOT for services such as providing instructional materials and public relations.
Neil Clark, an ECOT spokesman, told us he didn’t know whether Lager is profiting from the services his companies provide the school. Clark emphasized Lager is not involved in day-to-day operations of the school and isn’t on the board.
“His company is the agent that manages it, but he is not the school,” he said. “He has no direct influence on that school whatsoever.”
Clark said many ECOT students leave traditional schools because they’ve been bullied or had disciplinary problems. Some dropped out to have children before returning and some are in their early 20s.
He said many are academically behind so the high dropout rate is understandable. Clark said it’s “ridiculous” to compare the ECOT rate to traditional schools.
“You don’t walk into (Steele) High School and see a mother with a child going to class,” Clark said. “You don’t see 22-year-olds walking the hallways.”
Clark said that while some taxpayers may resent their money going to schools outside the district, Ohio’s charter school law allows it.
“The dollars follow the student,” he said, adding that much of levy money pays teacher salaries. “They’re passing a levy to educate the kids.”
Nonetheless, ECOT’s funding and high dropout rate angers some local school officials who say brick-and-mortar school districts are held to far higher standards.
“Some of our children are being robbed of an education by a state system with a lack of oversight and by private companies that are more interested in making profit than providing the foundation for a successful life,” Oberlin board of education member Barry Richard said in a September meeting.
Besides it’s low graduation rate, ECOT is also facing accusations of low attendance and enrollment. The Ohio Department of Education accused it of having a nearly 59 percent lower enrollment than it claimed, not meeting the 920-hour per year minimum attendance per student, and refusing to provide log-in/log-out records. The dispute led to a lawsuit.
“The department is committed to ensuring that all community (charter) schools receive their correct funding and that community schools are providing the educational services and programming for which Ohio taxpayers are paying,” Aaron Rausch, the director of the department’s Office of Budget and School Funding, wrote in a Sept. 26 letter to ECOT superintendent Rick Teeters.
Teeters didn’t return a call or email, but the school’s website accused the department of persecution. “ODE tries to wiggle out of clear evidence that ECOT was treated different than other e-schools,” the website said, citing a video excerpt of Rausch testifying in a deposition.
However, in another deposition excerpt on the website, Teeters admits he didn’t know how attendance was tracked in 2014-2015.
“It hadn’t been an issue brought to my attention,” he told a lawyer representing the department. “I would go ask the technology department and start digging there (for) who was around in 14-15.”
In a Sept. 30 ruling, Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Judge Jenifer French denied an appeal by ECOT that would block the department from calculating the school’s enrollment and funding based on the amount of time students logged in. French wrote in her decision that the department audit was in the interest of students and taxpayers.
“While there is certainly a public interest in school choice, and in the existence of eschools as an option for students, the court finds that there must still be accountability for the hundreds of millions of dollars in public money that are directed to such schools every year,” French said.
If only 40 percent of the roughly 17,000 ECOT students received the minimum instruction hours, Richard said the state should get back 60 percent of the $106 million ECOT received last academic year. Richard said local school districts ought to be reimbursed for 60 percent too.
“Whether or not Oberlin will receive any refund is not clear,” he said. “What is clear is that the district needs to make a renewed effort to bring these students back to our schools.”
When students return, they often struggle academically, said Oberlin superintendent David Hall and interim Wellington superintendent Tom Tucker. Tucker said dozens of students returned from ECOT while he was superintendent in Lorain from 2012 to 2015.
ECOT says it provides “customized learning” for students and forms strong bonds with parents and students. It also said it provides a less stressful environment for students who may have been bullied in traditional schools.
However, Tucker said many students lack the discipline needed to sit for hours per day at a computer in their homes. He said a mix of online and in-classroom study is needed for most students.
Amherst Steele High School principal Michael May said when he was an assistant principal at Westlake High School several years ago, students returning from ECOT told him they missed personal relationships they had with students and teachers. May said they also missed the structured environment of a traditional school and found it easier to take part in after school activities like sports.
Local school districts are also responsible for tracking “their” students for the state when they attend charter schools. Tucker said ECOT was bad at notifying Lorain when students dropped out. The longer students go without being re-enrolled in local school districts, the more money it costs the districts.
Tucker said ECOT often wouldn’t notify the state that a student had dropped out until Lorain notified ECOT that the student had re-enrolled in Lorain. Local school districts then have to file appeals with the department to get money that wasn’t paid when the students re-enrolled.
Tucker emphasized he’s not opposed to charter schools or online schools. But he said while traditional schools have rigorous state standards to meet regarding graduation and record-keeping, the playing field isn’t level for ECOT.
“They just get a free pass it appears,” he said.
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.
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