In the past couple of years, we’ve seen Ohio’s legislators take an ever greater interest in holding the large urban school districts “more accountable” to taxpayers. Laws passed under the Kasich Administration have created “The Cleveland Plan” and “The Columbus Plan” in recent years because those holding seats in Ohio’s Statehouse believe the districts are under-performing and needed new laws to ensure that Ohio’s tax dollars are being spent appropriately.
Now, as 2015 has dawned, we have to wonder if Ohio’s sort-of-new General Assembly will finally take an interest in holding charter schools accountable, most notably the state’s largest charter and online school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT). While nothing significant has changed regarding the school’s annual dismal academic performance, two other significant things have occurred that should finally make a plan to reform ECOT a reality.
First, Governor Kasich has publicly stated that he “will be putting some tough rules into our budget. We believe in charters … but we will not tolerate people coming into this state, making money at the expense of a great education for our kids.” That’s just talk for now, of course, but it’s certainly an interesting statement given that many leaders in Kasich’s own GOP have received significant political donations from charter school operators, with ECOT’s Bill Lager (and Kasich’s friend) leading the pack with over $2 million in the last 14 years.
Second, and perhaps even more surprising than Kasich’s pronouncement (and perhaps because of it), the Columbus Dispatch either went rogue today – or received permission from the Governor’s office – and published an article that is heavily critical of ECOT titled “Popular ECOT poor performer“.
Here at Plunderbund, we have been writing about ECOT for years and in much more depth than the Dispatch article, but the Central Ohio newspaper’s decision to attack one of the Ohio GOP’s sacred cows is quite remarkable.
Could “The ECOT Plan” really happen? We have good reason (and history) to doubt that Ohio’s GOP-dominated General Assembly has the political will to make it so, but when we compare ECOT to Cleveland and Columbus using the Kasich Administration’s accountability metrics, we can absolutely make the case that it is needed every bit as much as the plans for the two large urban districts.
[Editor’s note: All figures referenced are from the Ohio Department of Education.]
In 2014, schools and districts received nine letter grades. Here’s how Columbus, Cleveland and ECOT stack up against one another:
The letter grades look fairly similar across the board, but you’ll see that Columbus and Cleveland actually have a few higher grades in an area that, while controversial, is frequently posited as a key measure for schools that have low overall achievement scores — the value-added measures. You can see that Columbus received two A’s in this area — for children with disabilities and children in the lowest 20% of achievement statewide. The interpretation of these grades is that although these students overall test scores were low, their scores demonstrated that they made significant gains above and beyond what would normally be expected in a single year. In Cleveland, the grades of C in these categories is interpreted to say that those students made the gains that they would be expected to make in a year’s time.
While there are many in the education community who are skeptical of using value-added, the reality is that it is a part of the state law and has obviously been determined to be important by Kasich, et al. Therefore, when we look down the chart at ECOT’s value-added scores, we must assume that Ohio’s legislators are aghast at the F grades posted by ECOT (meaning their students demonstrated significantly below one year’s worth of growth in one year’s time).
Again, if Cleveland and Columbus merit laws to regulate them, why not ECOT?
But the letter grades don’t tell the full story – we must look behind some of those grades to get even more evidence of the need for new laws to “takeover” ECOT.
The most appalling figures are hidden by those F’s (and a C for Columbus) in the Graduation Rate columns.
ECOT’s actual graduation rate is significantly less than Cleveland’s and less than half of the rate in Columbus. Given that graduating from high school is the ultimate goal of any school system, ECOT’s numbers should raise some serious red flags. But these figures are even more alarming at ECOT, a school that is predominantly working with high school students. Last year, over 72% of ECOT’s enrolled students were in grades 9-12:
ECOT’s major base is high school students, yet they are only graduating at a 42.1% rate in five years. By comparison, Cleveland and Columbus have 32.4% and 25.8%, respectively, of their student populations in the high school grades.
Finally, if a key reason that the state’s politicians are meddling in local school districts is because taxpayer dollars, then we must look at how ECOT compares in their receipt of state funding.
In the 2013-14 school year, ECOT had the 10th highest enrollment in the entire state of Ohio, including all charter schools and public school districts. Columbus held the place at the largest, with Cleveland remaining second. In the complicated state funding “formula” that Ohio uses to determine the distribution of state taxpayer dollars, Cleveland received the highest amount of net foundation funding at just over $266 million. Columbus received the third-highest amount of state dollars, $121,695,461. ECOT, meanwhile, through the charter school funding process whereby they take money away from the home districts of the students they enroll, received $99,187,838 in state taxpayer dollars – the 5th-highest amount of state funding in all of Ohio (Toledo is #2, Akron is #4). ECOT received $19 million more in state funding than Cincinnati received, despite having fewer than half as many students.
While Cleveland did receive more than ECOT on a per pupil basis, Columbus received a net of only $2,573 per pupil compared to ECOT’s take of $6,819. Put another way, ECOT received more than 2.5 times the amount of state foundation funding for each student they enrolled than Columbus received.
Additionally, if Ohio’s state leaders are concerned about ensuring that state tax dollars are being “managed” appropriately by the two largest (but local) school districts in the state, then what about the accountability of ECOT, a school that enrolls students from 594 school districts across Ohio? The Governor and General Assembly like to tout “local control” despite their frequent actions to the contrary, but if they have been so eager to legislate changes to these two local school districts, wouldn’t they actually be better served by taking over control of ECOT, a school (district) that is truly a statewide entity?
Now that a case can be made that Ohio’s legislators should create “The ECOT Plan”, we have some recommendations for the plan that might sound familiar:
- Change The Leadership: It’s evident, based on the long history of underachievement at ECOT, that new leadership is needed. We recommend that the Governor create a commission to replace the existing ECOT school board. In addition to the school board, ECOT’s management company, Altair Learning, which has received over $56 million dollars over the past 14 years, has demonstrated no proven ability to improve the learning environment in order to improve the graduation rate, so should be fired immediately.
- Change The Curriculum: Bolstering the case that the school’s contract with Altair Learning should be terminated immediately is the management company’s adoption of IQ Innovations as the sole provider of an online curriculum. In FY14, IQ Innovations was paid $17.3 million for providing the curriculum for the 6th straight year, upping their total compensation to $69,846,154. Spending just shy of $70 million on a curriculum that is resulting in students demonstrating significantly below expected growth (based on Ohio’s value-added measures) is a gross misuse of public dollars and should cease immediately. Six years of low growth, low achievement, and low graduation rates is more than enough to demonstrate that the curriculum is wholly ineffective at obtaining the desired outcomes.
- Open The Books: State Auditor Dave Yost should be called on to immediately conduct a multi-year and comprehensive review of ECOT’s financial operations. With Altair Learning and IQ Innovations having the same principal owner (William Lager, also the founder of the school), Ohio’s taxpayers need to be assured that the contracts between ECOT and the two companies followed all appropriate laws surrounding the use of public monies and any and all contracts were bid appropriately. In addition, Yost needs to conduct a multi-year investigation into ECOT’s attendance and grading practices to ensure that all enrollment numbers have been reported with the highest integrity as it is these self-reported figures that dictate the allocation of taxpayer dollars to ECOT (and away from other school districts).
- Parent Takeover: ECOT should be immediately subjected to a parent takeover provision in state law and a non-partisan entity, say StudentsFirst, should be empowered to help coordinate the effort. ECOT will be required to notify all parents of the opportunity, with StudentsFirst serving to help organize the interested parties.
- Break It Up: In order to best facilitate a parent takeover and manage the district more effectively, ECOT should be broken up from one large, single school, into regional entities or sub-districts, each of would then be eligible for a takeover by parents, who could then bring in their own management company or more effective charter school organization.
In addition to these steps that would be enacted by “new” Kasich and the General Assembly interested in assuring the responsible use of state tax dollars, we’d like to encourage our friends at the Columbus Dispatch to continue to dig deeper into the current, and questionable, practices occurring at ECOT and perhaps begin an ongoing exposé-style series with an intimidating logo stuck to the left side of the online Education Page where readers could always keep track of the latest developments from one of Ohio’s leading watchdogs.
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