COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – Ohio’s auditor ordered a statewide examination Thursday of cyber schools’ data collection practices after his office found the state’s largest online charter school lacked adequate systems to track the time students spent learning.
Republican Auditor Dave Yost said the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow’s inability to reliably capture learning durations for its estimated 23,000 students puts the school at risk of making financial misstatements under Ohio’s new tracking protocols. He called that a “material weakness.”
The state is now basing e-school funding on time students spend learning, rather than on enrollment totals or certification by teachers, as it had done in the past. Yost said that could affect the schools’ financial conditions, which is his concern.
“Under these new standards, ECOT and many other e-schools will struggle to comply, and all are likely to owe something to the state,” he said. “There are other steps yet to occur in the legal system – including in the Court of Appeals and at the state Board of Education. Ultimately, the Legislature may need to consider whether duration is the appropriate measure for funding an e-school.”
ECOT is locked in a legal battle with the Ohio Department of Education over how it tracks students, a figure that determines how much state funding the school receives. The state asserts that the school’s enrollment is nearly 60 percent lower than originally reported, potentially jeopardizing about $60 million in state funds it received last year.
ECOT spokesman Neil Clark noted that Yost’s annual audit of the school was clean – except for the duration-tracking issue caused by a change in state protocols. He said the auditor warned last year that the Department of Education’s new criteria may have an impact on e-schools’ state audit results.
“The auditor’s letter made clear that even other members of state government were left in the dark about ODE’s retroactive actions and were at a loss at what to do about them,” he said. “Now, the most recent audit makes clear that ECOT followed the law as it always has. This report is more proof that ODE must be reined in.”
Ohio Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni, a candidate for governor, criticized the school’s response to Yost’s finding and called its criticism of state education regulators “shameful.”
“ECOT and other online schools have known since at least the beginning of 2015 that they were expected to document when students logged on and logged off,” he said. “That was clearly spelled out in instructions sent to e-schools regarding ODE’s attendance review process. To say otherwise is disingenuous.”
Results of Yost’s review are expected later this year.