The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow was unhappy, so it was time for a meeting.
This past winter, the state’s largest online charter school privately sounded alarms that the Department of Education was trying to implement new standards for tracking whether students are attending class.
So on Feb. 18, top-level staff members for GOP legislative leaders, two liaisons from Gov. John Kasich’s office and at least three top Ohio Department of Education staff members met with lobbyists for ECOT and other e-schools in a Senate office.
The online schools complained that the department suddenly wanted to use log-in durations to determine if students were getting the required 920 hours of “learning opportunities.” This was a shift from past auditing practices that did little digging into records to verify the hours online schools said students were offered.
The schools knew they stood to lose significant money if they couldn’t show students are logging in for assignments and lessons. In fact, it had already happened — tiny online Provost Academy was already on a repayment plan after failing in 2015 to prove their students were engaged for more than 20 percent of the required year.
Lobbyists including veteran Neil Clark, who represents ECOT, argued at the meeting that it was unfair that the department’s revised attendance tracking manual was not published until January 2016, halfway through the school year. The schools also argued that their software wasn’t equipped to provide the data.
School representatives and Republican legislative staffers left that meeting under the impression that the department was going to delay the attendance audits for online schools for at least a year.
But the next day, Aaron Rausch, the Department of Education’s director of the Office of Budget and School Funding, sent an email: “ODE (the department) will move forward with the 2015-16 FTE (attendance) reviews using the 2015 manual.”
Top House and Senate legislative staff members Mike Dittoe and Liz Connolly and ECOT lobbyist Chad Hawley each responded with similar confusion. “It was my understanding that the FTE review for the e-schools would be put on hold for this year,” Connolly wrote.
She wasn’t necessarily wrong, Rausch said during a recent deposition. But, he said, he made clear during the meeting that the request still needed approval from higher-ups.
“Whose final decision was it?” Rausch was asked by Marion Little, ECOT’s legal counsel in a lawsuit the school filed over the attendance reviews.
“Ultimately, it was Wayne Struble, who was the acting chief of staff for the governor’s office,” Rausch replied.
Kasich, a vocal supporter of school choice, has been relatively quiet regarding the ongoing legal battle between ECOT and the Department of Education. ECOT has tried to frame the fight as pitting the school against a liberal-minded department hell-bent on destroying eschools in Ohio.
But, as many suspected, Kasich has played a role in the department’s newfound aggressiveness in requiring online schools to verify with hard data that students are logging in and participating in school-related work.
However, Kasich continues to downplay his involvement.
“In a routine meeting with the department, their staff asked our staff’s opinion on this issue and it was shared,” said Kasich spokeswoman Emmalee Kalmbach. “These issues remain under the authority of the department, however.”
ECOT, founded by Bill Lager, a major Republican contributor, last year collected about $106 million in state funding for about 15,000 students. A sizable portion of ECOT’s money over the years has gone to Lager’s management and software companies for services and technology.
Rausch suggested that, based on ECOT’s initial audit in March, the state could ultimately require the school to pay back 80 percent of its funding for last year — though the final review was not finished. An initial sample of 750 students found most were logging in for about an hour per day.
Rausch recalled a conversation with Chris Babal, the department’s charter school payment administrator. “He discussed situations where there were students that had extended periods of inactivity, followed by a short login period, followed by long periods of inactivity, followed by a short login period.”
The department tried to do a final review of ECOT attendance records in July, as the school filed its lawsuit. John Wilhelm, the department’s area coordinator who oversees ECOT’s audit, said he and his team reviewed a new sample of 750 student records, but none contained log-in durations.
ECOT provided teacher certification of hours. Wilhelm said the information provided would have been enough to substantiate their student count under the attendance standard used when ECOT was last audited in 2011.
A Franklin County judge in early August ordered ECOT to turn over log-in data to the state.
In its lawsuit, ECOT says the department is violating state law and a 2003 funding agreement that, the school argues, prohibits the use of log-in durations to track attendance.
On June 8, ECOT made another attempt to convince the department to put off or alter the review in a meeting on June 8. ECOT highlighted the 2003 funding agreement signed by the Department of Education laying out how attendance audits should be conducted.
Little, ECOT’s attorney, said Diane Lease, the department’s chief legal counsel, “seemed surprised … about the existence of the funding agreement.”
Rausch said he didn’t read the funding agreement until after that June meeting, though Wilhelm had emailed it to him in the fall of 2015.
Rausch said he was “not aware” if the department is in compliance with the funding agreement. When asked, he also could not give a reason why the department wouldn’t have to comply with it.
After the June 8 meeting with ECOT, Rausch, said there was a meeting among department staff members and Kasich’s office, including Struble, the governor’s education policy adviser, and his legal counsel.
Other than saying the funding agreement was shared, the Department of Education’s legal counsel refused to let Rausch answer questions about what was discussed during that meeting because attorneys were involved.
Whatever was discussed, the department pushed ahead with the attendance audit, and ECOT filed a lawsuit to block it.
The department began asking e-schools for log-in durations after major attendance questions arose in 2015 during an audit of Provost Academy. The school’s case was so egregious — its own operating manual said students needed to log in for only one hour to be counted for five — department investigators dug through all log-in records.
Investigators found that instead of the 163 students Provost was claiming, the real full-time count was 34. The school is repaying hundreds of thousands of dollars over 19 months.
“I believe that ODE has the ability to develop criteria and documentation requirements for student participation,” Rausch said.