Since the Columbus Dispatch first began (wrongly) claiming credit for instigating a statewide investigation into “attendance fraud” by Ohio school districts, we here at Plunderbund have been the voice of logic.  While the central Ohio newspaper “reporters” have continued their narrative full of baseless attacks on the schools, we researched the law and identified the guidelines (or lack of) that the Ohio Department of Education provided to districts, proving that any districts that have may have modified attendance data retroactively have simply been following the process as spelled out in the law.

The Toledo Blade has done some outstanding, and objective, reporting on this investigation and their most recent report reveals the results of a private investigator’s work to uncover the story of the Toledo Public School District’s involvement in reporting their attendance figures.  Attorney Fritz Byers was hired by the Toledo Schools to research their own practices to get to the root cause of the allegations of wrongdoing with what is being called “scrubbing” of their attendance numbers.

In what was no shock to us, Byers unveiled a number of key findings that support our own reporting.  Most notably, Byers reports that the state’s EMIS Manual, the guide that tells districts how to report student data, “does not provide a definition of truancy, nor does it provide guidance about how or when this code is to be used.

Byers also confirmed that while Toledo administrators sought guidance from the ODE about the reporting of truant students, such guidance was not provided, with ODE preferring to leave districts to the content and ambiguity of the aforementioned EMIS Manual. Absent such specific direction, Toledo adopted their own process of withdrawing students when they met the predetermined standard of truancy.  Given that truancy actually has varying definitions in Ohio law and ODE guidelines, Toledo implemented their own two-part standard for determining the withdrawal criteria for students (ODE guidelines imply that districts are supposed to adopt such a policy): “A student would be withdrawn when that student both (i) had five consecutive unexcused absences during the concluding school year, and (ii) had at least twenty total unexcused absences.”

Two final findings by Byers highlight why an embarrassed Ohio Department of Education is staunchly attacking the accused districts while now finding themselves a target of the Ohio Auditor’s investigation.

From the report:

29. In preparing for reporting student-test data for the 2007-08 school year, TPS administrators discussed internally the truancy policy, which was understood to call for the withdrawal of students who met the two-pronged definition of truancy, as well as the possibility of re-enrollment. And they discussed whether that policy complied with state law. These internal discussions included recognition that the practice was in use in many other districts around the State and was openly discussed at meetings of school-district administrators.

30. As a result of these internal discussions, TPS administrators contacted the ODE by phone to seek an opinion as to whether the withdrawal and re-enrollment practice complied with state law, including the provisions of the ODE manual. During this phone conversation, when a TPS administrator described the practice, she was told that it did not square with the “intent” of  the manual. But when the administrator then asked for guidance about how to comply with the “intent” of the manual, she was told that the Department does not give guidance beyond what is stated in the manual. Although the ODE knew, directly from TPS as well as from press reports, of the withdrawal-and re-enrollment practice, no one at ODE told a TPS administrator that the practice should be stopped or that it violated the manual.

In short, Toledo had open discussions about their withdrawal policy a full four years ago and receive absolutely zero push-back or corrections from ODE and has been reporting student attendance data based on that policy for the entire four-year stretch without any questions from the state agency.

Meanwhile, ODE continues to deny that they have any role in overseeing district data or providing any assistance to school districts whatsoever.

John Charlton, a spokesman for ODE said, “The Ohio Department of Education welcomes any opportunity to review our processes for improvement when warranted.  However, we will not accept responsibility for erroneous data submitted by the Toledo Public Schools.  It sounds to me like TPS officials are trying to pass the buck. We are not going to take that blame. It’s their fault for providing us with inaccurate information.

Which makes us wonder: If ODE isn’t reviewing this data nor providing instruction to districts on appropriate procedures, then what, exactly, are they doing in that large office building in downtown Columbus?

Here’s the truth: the laws aren’t there and the districts have done nothing wrong.  So instead of having to listen to ODE blame schools, avoid responsibility, and accuse districts of trying to pass the buck, they need to own up to their role and bring this faux scandal to a close so we can all get back to the real work of helping improve teaching and learning in Ohio.

Step up, ODE.