Seven takeaways from ECOT’s potential closure

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After losing its sponsorship, ECOT, the largest e-school in Ohio, appears to be on the brink of closure. Districts and other e-schools are bracing for the possible flood of new students, preparing to hire new teachers, manage students’ transcripts, and get them up to speed mid-year. Not surprisingly, politicians are squeezing the situation for every last drop. Taking hardline stances on charter schools in Ohio is like a free campaign booster shot, with this particular situation offering extra potency. Meanwhile, families of some 12,000 students are dealing with the nightmare of impromptu school shopping.

Much is being said about ECOT right now. This shouldn’t surprise, given its status as the largest and most maligned charter school in Ohio and the role of its founder among the old guard of widely reviled campaign contributors in laying the groundwork for a very partisan charter landscape in Ohio. Each development toward ECOT’s downfall has sharpened new arrows in the quiver from which to take aim against charter schools broadly—a serious portion of which deserve never to be mentioned in the same breath as the near-fallen giant. What, if anything, can be learned and applied from this? Here are some takeaways, beyond the most simplistic and/or politicized ones that have dominated news and social media.

  1. Behind each of these 12,000 kids are parents who will lose sleep. They need better tools. This week, thousands of parents are scrambling to figure out where their kids will be attending school next week. Any parent who’s ever struggled to find a better school option for their kids will understand the gravity of this. Heck, any parent should. This week, I’m thinking about my child’s upcoming Valentine’s Day party, coverage for a sitter, and scheduling a pediatrician visit, and even that can feel like juggling plates. Imagine being a parent who has to drop everything to find a new school. A spokesperson from the Ohio Department of Education suggested that parents review the “find a school” tool on its homepage—a good suggestion, sure, but a terribly inadequate reflection of the work involved to actually do this well. Most families don’t find a school online with the same ease that they find a pharmacy location. And we have a long way to go to make this process easier for families. 
  2. Family choice is paramount. Despite ECOT’s high-profile struggles, it reaffirms the fact that families need better options. Some might suggest the opposite—this demonstrates that the school choice movement has gone awry. Yet regardless of how well ECOT did or didn’t serve its students, the fact remains that many of their students were also ill-served by their previous schools. Parents deserve the right to put their children in options best suited to them—no matter what that means for the traditional districts’ balance sheets.
  3. And yet, parent choice is not enough. There’s a longstanding debate within the school choice and education reform communities about the extent to whether parent choice must be paired with some degree of government oversight and regulation. ECOT would seem to provide evidence toward the need for stronger oversight—not just on academics but on technical compliance like attendance tracking, which must not be overlooked as it was in Ohio for too long.
  4. Wide misperceptions on school funding persist. I blogged about this last year, but the headlines about the funding repercussions for Ohio districts continue to seem a bit silly (ex: “ECOT closure could send students and money back to your district”). If more students enroll at a given school, we should expect state funding to follow. However, the notion that districts deserve refunds for students they didn’t educate reflects a misunderstanding of how the funding system works.
  5. Now would be a good time to revisit your assumptions. No matter your views on school choice or on ECOT in particular, you probably believe those views are aligned with what’s best for children. Rather than reinforce those beliefs and fall headlong into confirmation bias, it’s worth tougher reflection. Charter supporter: Did you ever speak out about ECOT, even when articles like this one emerged about Bill Lager’s remarks about “doing it for the money”? Why not? Were you too worried about sullying the name of charters? Afraid to make enemies within the movement? If Ohio’s charter community had been more unequivocal about quality throughout its history, our narrative may have been different. Charter opponents: What will happen if your district takes on 500 ECOT students who are severely credit deficient? Are you willing to reconsider how you view graduation statistics and how you use them in arguments against charters? Could you stop conflating all Ohio charters with ECOT, calling them for-profit, and using broad brush strokes?
  6. Precision and data are important. I’ve seen ECOT’s data used in so many ways it’s hard to keep count. It’s an example of the worst graduation rate in the country, yet it also graduates the highest number of students of any school in the state. These numerical sleights of hand happen all the time during policy discourse, yet it’s critical to look beyond headlines and consider data and evidence with nuance.
  7. We need to do better. Finally, above all else, we need to do better for kids. Every school superintendent, leader, or board member—of any type of school—would be well-served to ask themselves how they can better serve the students they have, including the toughest ones. Especially the toughest ones. In some instances, traditional school districts intentionally pushed out students who were credit deficient and likely to be a drain on their report cards. In other instances, charters have recruited students who are not likely to do well there; this needs to stop.

The fallout from ECOT’s likely collapse should force us all to rethink important education policies, including school accountability for graduation rates, how we document student learning (whether by “seat and screen time” or competency), and even admissions and record-keeping policies. Kids and families in Ohio deserve better than what they’ve been through, and are about to go through, if and when ECOT closes its doors. 

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