In a story released by the Toledo Blade today, the Toledo Public Schools revealed that they had been engaged in the practice of “scrubbing” student attendance — the practice of withdrawing and re-enrolling students who are chronically absent and miss long stretches of school.  The TPS superintendent ordered a review of their district practices after Columbus was attacked by the Columbus Dispatch after the school district voluntarily requested assistance from the Ohio Auditor.  After being blindsided by the accusations, the Ohio Department of Education also became involved.

As the Dispatch was continually unable to articulate what laws, exactly, had been violated, we explained how the practice is not only legal, but actually advocated by the Ohio Department of Education and existing laws.  Just over a week ago on Plunderbund, we summarized the process:

…there is no law that defines when a district is permitted or required to “withdraw” a student.  Therefore, districts are left to independently make the decision about when to use these definitions of truancy/nonattendance in reporting a student as having withdrawn.  And because a student who is identified as truant to the point of being withdrawn isn’t usually identified until weeks later, when do you think the attendance adjustments would be done?

Today’s Toledo Blade article will read very familiar to those who have been following this story.  While not as full if implied guilt as central Ohio’s newspaper, the Blade story is similar in that it has a complete absence of lawbreaking.

The superintendent explains that it isn’t the notion of illegality that is causing him to cease the practice, but the absence of an explicit endorsement:

“There is a piece of what we do that we are hearing is in contention in Columbus, and that is the piece that we focused on and we are not doing anymore,” [Superintendent Jerome] Pecko said. “Whether or not it is something that will, in the end, be endorsed by the people in Columbus, we just don’t know. Absent that endorsement, I just don’t feel comfortable to continue to do it, so we have stopped it so this particular report card is going to be a clean report card.”

Lack of comfort does not equal against the law or even improper.  Pecko simply doesn’t want to have to deal with the State Department of Education who will be vigorously trying to hide this gaping loophole that they and the legislature have failed to address.  The TPS lawyer backs this up in statements that also support our post:

Keith Wilkowski, a TPS lawyer, said the Ohio Department of Education’s Education Management Information System handbook seems to allow “scrubbing,” but it is unclear.

“It appears this has been out there for a number of years,” Mr. Wilkowski said.

“I was left with really just scratching my head trying to figure out how one is supposed to follow the EMIS manual,” he said. “Overall the sense that one gets is that the state wants you to report the scores of students who have been in your system, but you are to be evaluated on the students you have had the opportunity to teach.”

Mr. Wilkowski said there is a provision directing schools not to count students who have been withdrawn for non-attendance or chronic truancy. The statutory definition for chronic truancy is five or more days, he said.

“We concluded this was just very unclear and has been going on for some time, and people have been trying in good faith to apply the concept,” Mr. Wilkowski said.

The district superintendent is unclear, the district attorney is unclear, and even the Board President is unclear, positing that the lack of clarity has occurred at the state level:

“I know that once it was brought to the attention of the superintendent and the board, it stopped immediately,” Ms. Sobecki said. “It looks to me there are questions at the state level of how they interpret that law, and I think that it might be a state-level problem,” [said Toledo Board of Education President Lisa Sobecki]

Will the Ohio Department of Education now also investigate a second large urban district that has self-reported the use of an attendance process that falls within the realm of ODE’s guidelines?  As this continues to be revealed as a standard practice of district’s “trying in good faith to apply the concept” as the TPS attorney confirmed, will the Ohio Department of Education finally step up and take responsibility?  The lack of a single shred of evidence that these districts have broken any laws through this practice simply can’t continue to be ignored by the Ohio press.

Ohio’s newspapers need to shift the focus of this investigation toward the Ohio Department of Education and the Ohio Legislature — those who craft (and fail to craft) laws that make sense for schools.