Cracking down on e-schools: What’s with the double standard?

E-schools, a.k.a. virtual charter schools, have been so thoroughly mired in controversy that they’ve become radioactive in most education discussions. Or in most discussions, period. The current dispute in Ohio is largely technical and centers on the extent to which e-schools provide learning opportunities to students rather than merely offering them. This is much more than semantics; how to track attendance and student log-ins for funding purposes is at the heart of a year-long lawsuit against the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) by one of the state’s largest and most politically influential e-schools. Hundreds of millions of public dollars are at stake.

There have also been broad concerns about e-schools’ lagging performance in Ohio as well as nationally. Last year, a trio of education groups, including long-time charter advocacy organizations, began to share their concerns more publicly, offering policy recommendations to base funding on performance and consider creating enrollment criteria for students. These bold suggestions were embraced shortly thereafter by Ohio’s Auditor of State, Dave Yost, who recently ordered a statewide examination of how online charters collect learning and log-in data.

So it’s no surprise that Senator Joe Schiavoni, a long-time advocate for charter accountability, is back at it with another bill. His latest proposal (SB 39) would add new rules for Ohio’s virtual schools, which collectively serve 38,000 students—well, some of them. E-schools overseen by school districts would get a pass. If Schiavoni hopes to be a serious champion for quality, he needs to drop the legislation’s double standards, carve-outs, and special exemptions, which are precisely what Ohio’s latest charter reforms were meant to eliminate. Now is not the time for new loopholes or favoritism.   

Quick glance at SB 39

Let’s set aside whether the bill’s main provision—requiring e-schools to keep record of the number of hours students spend engaged in learning opportunities—is necessary. (In our view, Ohio’s charter reform law, HB 2, put adequate provisions in place to allow ODE to require log-in and attendance data.) What stands out most is the bill’s brazen partiality for district-sponsored e-schools and an attempt to hold them to a lower standard despite the fact that they presumably face the same issues with attendance tracking.

Take a look at some of SB 39’s provisions below, which would only apply to e-schools not sponsored by school districts. (This is not meant to be a comprehensive analysis of SB 39.)

  • Each e-school must keep track of the number of hours each student is “actively participating in learning opportunities”
  • Parents or guardians must be notified when a student fails to participate in learning opportunities for ten days in a row
  • The school must calculate full-time equivalency (FTE)—which is the basis for how e-schools are paid—according to the amount of time a student was engaged in learning opportunities
  • E-schools must provide additional report card information, including mobility data
  • Test scores of students enrolled in an e-school who transfer back to their resident school district will be included in the e-school’s accountability report if the student had attended there more than 90 days
  • Schools must include their A-F report card grades on their advertising, recruiting, or promotional materials
  • Public meetings of an e-school must be made available to the public through live streaming
  • If an e-student’s performance declines, her parents, teachers, and principal must “confer to evaluate” whether the student should continue in that school

The nine e-schools sponsored by school districts (out of 23 total in the state) would be unaffected by these changes. This begs all sorts of questions. If Schiavoni believes detailed log-in records are necessary to adequately gauge learning time in a virtual setting, why wouldn’t it also be applied to district e-students? If a student misses 12 school days, wouldn’t all parents of e-students appreciate notification? If transparency in governing board meetings (which are already public) are so important, why not require live streaming for all e-schools? Why not all publicly funded schools, for that matter? Why should the state change its funding calculation, but only for some e-schools? If test scores from e-students shouldn’t mar school districts in the event that students transfer back, is it fair (or even legal) to count scores in some instances but not others? What would happen if one of Ohio’s large e-schools switched to a district sponsor; would these provisions no longer apply to them?

Wanted: consistency

Despite most aspects of SB 39 being unnecessary and/or overboard, the bill’s intention to improve e-school accountability is reasonable given their performance history and the amount of funding at stake. Still, the carve-outs for district-affiliated schools have no place in an accountability bill. SB 39 also shines light on hypocrisy among some members of the General Assembly, who may be motivated by antipathy for Ohio’s big virtual charter networks, allegiance to traditional public schools, or both. Plain Dealer reporter Patrick O’Donnell covered this inconsistency in December with a particularly poignant headline: “A few online schools want special treatment to avoid paying money back to state.” Several district-sponsored e-schools serving at-risk students—faced with the threat of having to pay back public funds—made “emotional pleas” to the state legislature. They won the hearts of some Democrats—several of whom are typically unabashed in calls for more accountability for e-schools and charters broadly.

Perhaps those same lawmakers don’t realize that 40 percent of Ohio’s e-schools are sponsored by school districts. Many are low-performing and post similar scores (sometimes lower scores) compared to other e-schools. If SB 39 is sound policy, it should be applied across the board. On the flipside, if SB 39 would create undue compliance burdens, jeopardize the education of hard-to-serve youth, or impose unreasonable standards, Schiavoni and his fellow Democrats are entitled to be concerned. The problem lies in caring about only some schools and students, while thousands of others would be disparately impacted for the sole reason that they opted out of the traditional public school system. 

Jamie Davies O'Leary
Jamie Davies O'Leary is former Senior Ohio Policy Analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.