Originally published in The Columbus Dispatch – September 13, 2018
The story of Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow — the now-closed online public charter school and its operators who are accused of overbilling the state by millions of dollars — is an ugly saga on many levels.
For one, it’s a violation of the public trust. Misuse of tax dollars should never be tolerated, whether it’s done by traditional school districts, charter schools or any other entity entrusted with public funds. When providing a public service, complying with the law must be the standard.
But others are using ECOT’s misconduct to try and taint the reputations of all online schools and charter schools. That is not fair to the educators at these schools who are abiding by the law and serving the needs of students across the state.
Ohio Virtual Academy is one of those schools. I chair the independent, nonprofit governing board of OHVA, a group of volunteer citizens — parents, educators, and community leaders — who oversee the operations, finances and policies of our online public charter school.
OHVA has a track record of financial responsibility and compliance with state and federal requirements. In clear contrast to ECOT, the Ohio Department of Education’s full-time equivalency review found the school to be in compliance, with no issues or corrective actions. OHVA claims funding only for verified student attendance. Indeed, officials at the department told OHVA staff that the school’s systems were the “gold standard” on how to track, document and report student attendance in an online school. In fact, in the most recent reporting period, the Ohio Department of Education found that OHVA underreported its attendance and provided the school the correct amount of funding.
ECOT’s closure in 2018 created an emergency situation for more than 12,000 students who were suddenly left without a school in the middle of the year. Even before ECOT shut down, OHVA planned and prepared for such an emergency. Nobody else had a plan of what to do if ECOT closed — not the legislature, the governor’s office, or even the Department of Education. But Ohio Virtual Academy did.
Our school readied capacity, hired and trained additional teachers and staff and prepared ourselves for what we anticipated could be an extremely chaotic situation for thousands of families. When ECOT officially closed, leaving thousands to scramble to find a new school, our nonprofit school board extended the midyear enrollment period for any student who needed us, and our administrators and teachers often worked unpaid overtime to help ECOT families through the transition. We stepped up and took in approximately 4,000 students — the largest number of ECOT transfer students of any school in the state. These students needed a school home. And yes, it created a significant financial, academic and operational challenge to our school, but it was the right thing to do for these kids.
Furthermore, we increased our summer-school program, at no cost to the state, to offer remedial classes for students who needed to get back on track.
Online schools help students with all types of needs, including children with medical challenges, learning disabilities, academic issues or victims of bullying and school violence. Many of these students are at-risk, either economically, academically or both.
And these schools are often a last resort for families, providing a public-school alternative when no other options exist. In Ohio, charter schools are largely concentrated in eight urban school districts. As The Dispatch reported, that means 43,637 square miles, or more than 97 percent of the state, do not have any brick-and-mortar charter schools. There is a massive charter-school accessibility gap for families who don’t live in or near these urban areas. Online schools are often the only charter school available, and without them, many families would have no public-school alternative at all. Schools like OHVA give equal access and equal opportunity to students from every county in the state.
What happened with ECOT should never happen again, but it is as unfair to associate ECOT with all online charter schools as it would be to blame the entire public education system for scandals that occurred in traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Online charter schools serve an important role in Ohio’s public education system and are the schools of choice for thousands of Ohio families. The teachers, school leaders and volunteers in these schools who are adhering to the rules and putting the interests of kids first deserve our praise.
Matt Norton is a parent, financial adviser and president of the Ohio Virtual Academy Board of Trustees.