An honest look at Ohio's e-schools

“Our
blog tough on OH e-schools; Innovation OH report=misleading hit job” – that’s
how Bill Tucker, managing director of Education Sector, a nonpartisan education
policy think tank based in Washington, D.C., contrasted his organization’s recent blog
series

about Ohio’s e-schools with an e-school report from
Innovation Ohio, a new Ohio-based public policy organization. I couldn’t have
said it better myself.

This
contrast is important, especially because at face value both analyses seem to
land on similar ground.

Ed
Sector wrapped up its blog series by saying:

As online learning continues to grow and
expand in ways that we may not even be able to envision, strong oversight to
ensure both high quality learning experiences and accountability for public
funds are essential.

Innovation
Ohio says in its report:

…it is critical that legislators see to it
that public money is spent wisely and not wasted on “alternatives” that deliver
even worse results than the traditional schools they were designed to
supersede. In the absence of strict accountability and oversight, e-schools can
be a cruel hoax on the children, parents, and taxpayers who were counting on
them.

The
similarities end there.

From
May 2 to 12, Education Sector lifted up data and information about Ohio’s
e-schools on its blog, The Quick and the
Ed,
concluding with a few policy lessons. The Fordham Institute has long
analyzed the performance of Ohio’s e-schools as a sector in our annual local
report card analysis (see last year’s analysis here), but Ed
Sector’s blog series broke new ground in how it disaggregated and presented
e-school data. Tucker and his colleagues shared new and different analyses of
e-school data, and created interactive charts that help readers better visualize
the trends and information.

The
Ed Sector team first profiled the Buckeye State’s e-school landscape by
breaking schools down into three categories: statewide schools that accept
students from across Ohio, regional schools that draw students from a limited
number of districts, and local schools that serve only students from a host
district. These distinctions are important and too often glossed over; few
people realize the vast majority (20 of 27) of Ohio’s e-schools are not big,
statewide operations, but rather are smaller district-run programs. Next, they
examined whether the size of an e-school correlates with its performance. Ed
Sector’s conclusion was no.

Ed
Sector then looked at the demographics of e-school students and student
mobility in Ohio’s online schools. While they concluded that there is no
“average” e-school student in Ohio, the data did support a few conclusions.
Ohio’s statewide e-schools serve special education and minority populations
similar to the state average, but their students are (to varying degrees) more
economically disadvantaged than their peers across the state. Demographics of
students at local and regional e-schools tend to reflect the demographics of
the communities the students come from (with some exceptions for special
education at local e-schools).

As
to mobility, Ed Sector found that 30 percent of Ohio e-school students were
enrolled in their school for less than one year and just 11 percent were
enrolled for more than three years. Statewide e-schools had more students
enrolled for one year or longer than did their local and regional peers.

Ed
Sector’s report concludes with five policy recommendations, applicable here and
beyond the Buckeye State:

  1. Use actual student performance, not facsimiles
    or assumptions, to drive regulation of e-schools;
  2. Tailor authorizing and oversight of e-schools to
    fit the online learning model and develop reporting and accountability measures
    accordingly;
  3. Eliminate “accountability-free zones” in which
    district-sponsored e-schools that serve as drop-out prevention or
    credit-recovery schools can skirt state accountability rules;
  4. Help families and students make good school
    choices; and
  5. Ensure transparency about who operates and
    governs an e-school. (To illustrate this point, Ed Sector offered up a gift
    card to the first blog reader who could tell, from looking at the school’s website, who actually operates OHDELA
    -- the Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy. It’s a challenging
    exercise; try it for yourself.)

A
few pages into Innovation Ohio’s report, I was pleasantly surprised by its
fairness and factual accuracy. But ultimately the report, tellingly titled Ohio’s E-schools: Funding Failure; Coddling
Contributors
, relies on the organization’s go-to approach of conflating
facts and misrepresenting information to support IO’s foregone conclusion that
Ohio’s e-schools are “nothing short of a disaster” and that the state’s failure
to reign them in stems from the political influence and contributions of a few
e-school operators.

Ohio’s
e-schools are certainly not a “disaster” (see Ed Sector’s blog series for
evidence), but I won’t quibble with IO’s allegations about the political
influence of e-school operators (after all, the Ohio House did make secretive changes
to the budget that would sweeten the pot for these for-profit operators and
others). What I take issue with is how IO, a supposedly nonpartisan organization,
consistently presents data out of context and makes incorrect assumptions in
order to deliver a partisan attack.

The
mistruths in the report are plenty (a few are exposed in this short take from the Ohio
Alliance for Public Charter Schools), but the most egregious is this: that
e-schools cost Ohio more than traditional schools. IO is correct that e-schools
receive an average of $6,320 per pupil in funding from the state (via deductions
from their students’ home school districts). The report goes on to say that
this amount is 95 percent more than traditional schools receive from the state.
This may be technically true, to a degree. One-hundred percent of e-school
funding flows from state coffers; but a good chunk of district funding comes
from local taxpayers and doesn’t pass through the state treasurer. Does that
mean that local tax dollars shouldn’t and don’t figure into the equation when
policymakers, the media, and the public are assessing education spending?

For
example, last year Columbus City Schools spent $14,904 per pupil, according to
the Ohio Department of Education. About 30 percent ($4,518) was picked up by
the state; local tax dollars covered another 55 percent; the federal government
paid for the rest. I am a property owner and taxpayer in Columbus, and when I
see those numbers I don’t for a moment think my district is saving me any money over the $6,320 that
the state flows to e-schools. Or take Orange City Schools, near Cleveland,
which spent more per pupil than any Ohio district last year, $21,191 –more than
three times what Ohio e-schools receive to educate a single student. The state
of Ohio contributed almost 20 percent ($4,174) of that and local taxpayers
picked up nearly 80 percent ($16,952). Any right-minded observer would deduce
that taxpayers are spending less to educate e-school students than their peers
in Orange City.

In
the end, Ed Sector produced a thoughtful analysis of Ohio e-schools, putting
accurate data in the appropriate context and drawing conclusions worth paying
attention to, especially as the Ohio Senate grapples with many of the
accountability issues Ed Sector confronts. Meanwhile, Innovation Ohio offered
up another sloppy attack job of the current administration, timed purely for
political reasons and full of half-truths, that doesn’t hold water under even
the slightest scrutiny.

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