by Denis Smith

For longtime readers of the Columbus Dispatch who have endured years of little or no coverage of charter school misdeeds, it’s still a shock to see story after story in the last few months detailing the abject failure and travesty that is the notorious Ohio online charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. The Sunday, October 30 edition was, yet again, a case in point.

In a page one, above-the-fold story, Dispatch readers were informed that many otherwise disengaged ECOT students are beyond the “chronic truant” definition found in state law. The scope of the truancy problem is worrisome, particularly to the courts that must enforce the truancy law. “They are doing a severe injustice to these children if they think it is appropriate to allow these kids to miss tens or hundreds of days of school,” Judge Kim A. Browne of Franklin County Juvenile Court observed in the latest ECOT tale of woe.

The Dispatch followed up the ECOT truancy story with an editorial four days later that was, for a paper that previously reported little about charter school mayhem, uncharacteristically blunt:

“Thus far, the fight has centered on legal issues. Lost has been a more-serious concern: Kids aren’t attending school. And no one raised the alarm.”

But the alarm sirens about student attendance are being heard, and charter critics have long warned about suspect practices at the online school. In fact, it’s not so much about alarms as it is about people – including editorial writers – starting to recognize the dimension and depth of the Ohio charter school swamp.

While the ECOT truancy story is deserving of the closest scrutiny, it is only part of a larger phenomenon we are experiencing in this country that also requires a thorough review.

Said another way, you don’t have to read the Columbus Dispatch to find out that in addition to phantom and part-part-time ECOT students that are seemingly AWOL and truant, many other kids also don’t seem to be in school. The evidence is there for all to see. Just look around.

Go to Costco during the week and you’ll see school-age kids exploring the warehouse club’s vast confines during the school day. Or to the supermarket, where this retired school administrator makes note of the fact that there are frequently many kids who, accompanied by their parents, can be found examining good things to eat and Redbox videos to borrow. Or travel out-of-state and stop in a rest area or some other place and you’ll see kids. Lots of kids.

No, don’t confuse these kinds of observations from those where kids are in a group on a field trip or walkabout, another kind of learning experience outside the classroom. We’re talking about kids that are becoming increasingly visible during school hours. Surely they can’t all be ECOT students.

Last spring, I noticed so many kids in Costco one day that I went to the websites of several nearby school districts to check school calendars for answers.

Surely, there had to be a teacher records day or district staff development scheduled, or maybe parent conferences. Hmmm, maybe an early release to coincide with a holiday could cause a noticeable amount of kids congregating in the big box store and some nearby retail outlets.

Nothing. Not just one website, but multiple districts revealed no details of school being out of session on the day I observed so many kids in Costco and another store near my home. Then I got to thinking more about this seeming phenomenon of kids being out and about on school days.

With all of these kids in plain sight on days that school districts are in session, there had to be multiple explanations. The recent experience over the last several years with a neighbor family, parents of two home-schooled children, came to mind as one possible explanation.

Soon after their dad pulled his car out of the garage on weekdays to go to work, the two siblings would be out in their driveway, playing with their scooters and other toys, while their peers, outfitted with backpacks, walked past them on their way to our neighborhood’s elementary school.

I can imagine what those kids walking by with their stuffed backpacks might be thinking about: why aren’t these other kids in school with us? If these kids might have scratched their heads, it’s no wonder that old retired guys navigating their way through Costco might also have a related question in their heads.

But an increase in home education numbers might be only part of the answer as to why we see so many kids in public places during school hours.

Could it be that besides the extremely poor example sent by ECOT, other online schools and brick-and-mortar charters may, for a variety of reasons, also be encouraging truancy due to lax practices, including lack of purposeful engagement with families and no identified personnel assigned to deal with student attendance issues?

And if there might be some merit in that view, in the end there might be an even deeper causal agent: lack of community.

If it sounds paradoxical that there might be a lack of community in Ohio’s so called “community schools,” an earlier essay in Plunderbund examined a foundational issue that may be at the very heart of the seeming casualness we are seeing about the need for kids to be in school, in a structured environment, and for being engaged learners. The more complete explanation about truants and otherwise disengaged students that are seen here, there, and everywhere might be centered in the very essence of charters, which by their nature are not centered in the community like the local schools that are part of a traditional public school district.

In May, the disaffiliative effects of charters, with their basis in educational choice, were explored in an essay that questioned conservative politicians for wanting to have it both ways in restructuring prevailing public policy and the subject of public schools:

“…how can you promote the concept of choice, particularly educational choice, as a desired public policy outcome, while also warning about weakened community cohesion and a frayed, tattered, strained social fabric?

The frayed, tattered, strained social fabric is out there for all to see. It is in the form of chronically truant ECOT students who are disengaged from their peers, and it is in the form of young children playing in their driveway while other neighborhood children walk by on their way to the community’s public school.

That strained social fabric is there to see in the form of kids in Costco and in malls. So it’s fair to again examine the Dispatch editorial’s question, but in doing so, broaden its scope to recognize a problem that is much, much larger than ECOT:

“Lost has been a more-serious concern: Kids aren’t attending school. And no one raised the alarm.”

Certainly we’re not going to find an attendance officer or two in these stores and malls to determine why a particular school-age child is not in school. But perhaps some social science researchers can, with the permission of any attending parent, conduct a short, structured interview to determine why a particular child is not in school, but enjoying a Panera breakfast or a Wendy’s lunch down the street from the nearest public school. Hint to doctoral students: with the charter wars continuing to rage across the country, you’ve got a dissertation topic here that is waiting to be designed. Go for it.

In the meantime, as we see encouragement from right-wing politicians for more home education, for more for-profit companies opening more charter school chains across the nation, and perhaps the most disaffiliative trend of all – more online charters – we shouldn’t be surprised to see kids in lots of places other than their neighborhood schools.

Educational researcher and scholar Kenneth Conklin defined the problem succinctly about 15 years ago:

“A society’s culture can survive far longer than the lifespan of any of its members, because its educational system passes down the folkways and knowledge of one generation to subsequent generations. A culture changes over time, but has a recognizable continuity of basic values and behavioral patterns that distinguishes it from other cultures. That continuity is provided by the educational system.” [emphasis mine]

So let’s put it this way. If we truly want to value choice, we may have inadvertently shred the social fabric so much that we are now allowing kids to have the choice of getting up around noon – as the Dispatch story detailed in the case of one student – or allowing kids to choose between going to school one day or spending it at the mall with mom or dad or at Wendy’s or Panera.

In this kind of deregulated world, the world of charterdom with its 150 exemptions from state education law, and where Cole Porter would agree that with deregulation, Anything Goes, who needs attendance officers or compulsory attendance laws?

Yes, Ohio legislators, as the Dispatch observed, kids aren’t attending school. And it’s not just about ECOT. What are you going to do about it? Or worse yet, Ohio legislators, do you even care?

In the meantime, with more choice, we must expect a more frayed, tattered, strained social fabric. The signs for this – like kids everywhere but in school – should be evident.

What are we going to do about it? Do we the people even care?