The end of the ECOT saga provides schools in Ohio with an opportunity to reflect on how they approach enrollment and attendance reporting.
Earlier this month, the Ohio Supreme Court put an end to the drawn-out saga of the controversial Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) online charter school. The Court’s 4-2 decision — Justice Pat DeWine recused himself because his father, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, represented the state in the case — affirmed the Ohio Board of Education’s assessment that ECOT has an obligation to reimburse the state for nearly $80 million of ill-gotten funding.
In January, the governing board of ECOT’s sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, voted unanimously to shutter the school’s doors at the end of its winter term, forcing some 12,000 students to find new schools mid-year. The board had hoped to keep ECOT open through the end of the academic year, but after the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) rejected the school’s plan to restructure its debt, it became clear that the school’s financial collapse was imminent.
Some stakeholders remained hopeful that a favorable Ohio Supreme Court ruling would enable the school to rise from the ashes, but it now appears all but certain that the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow is history. And while ECOT was mired in controversy from the get-go — its founder, William Lager, owns a pair of edtech companies that received tens of millions of dollars of business from ECOT — its cardinal sin (and consequent downfall) should serve as a cautionary tale for schools throughout Ohio.
The Start of a Controversial Trend
In 2000, ECOT became Ohio’s first online charter school. Despite its novelty, the school enjoyed rapid growth almost immediately, growth that only accelerated as the school gained name recognition. Between the 2005-2006 and 2014-2015 academic years, ECOT’s enrollment ballooned to over 14,500, an increase of 122 percent. By the 2015-2016 academic year, ECOT’s 17,000-strong enrollment made it the largest online school in the state.
Its subsequent problems notwithstanding, ECOT had a substantial impact on Ohio’s educational landscape. During the 2014-2015 academic year, around 38,500 young Ohioans were enrolled in schools like ECOT, placing Ohio alongside California and Pennsylvania as the states with the largest number of primary and secondary students taking classes online. During the following academic year, the state provided online schools with $267 million of funding, amounting to over a quarter of its entire charter school budget.
Despite this robust investment, the effectiveness of schools like ECOT is a hotly debated issue. On the one hand, online schools provide unparalleled flexibility, a major selling point for students with jobs, children, or serious medical problems. Indeed, 19 percent of former ECOT students had a disability, 72 percent came from low-income families, and many others had struggled to find their place in more traditional school settings. “Without the bullying, I was able to focus,” says 2014 ECOT graduate Sydney DeBerry. “That was [always] a big distraction, not only to my work but to my individuality.”
On the other hand, online schools are notorious for failing to meet baseline performance standards. From 2011 through 2014, more than 10,500 ECOT seniors failed to graduate on time. For the 2013-2014 academic year, only 35 of Ohio’s more than 700 traditional districts and charter schools reported a lower graduation rate than ECOT’s 38 percent rate. During the same year, ECOT received “Fs” in every category except state testing performance — in which it received a “D” — on its ODE District Report Card.
The Cost of Misreporting Enrollment
Questions about its performance aside, the proximate cause of ECOT’s downfall was its failure to keep accurate enrollment records. A summer 2016 ODE audit found that ECOT could only provide documentation of class participation for 6,300 of the 15,300 students it had claimed to have enrolled during the preceding academic year. As a result, the state demanded that ECOT return $64 million of the $109 million of funding it had received for the year in question (a figure the courts later reduced to $60 million).
The following year, a second ODE audit found that ECOT lacked proper documentation for around 2,600 of its reported enrollees, prompting the state to demand an additional $19 million in compensation.
To recuperate the $79 million dollars it was owed, the ODE opted to deduct roughly $4 million a month from ECOT’s funding starting in September 2017. This deduction proved too much for ECOT’s checkbook to bear, and observers estimate that the school would have become totally insolvent by March 2018 had it not been shut down.
Learning a Lesson from ECOT
While ECOT has become the poster child for what can go wrong when a school misreports its enrollment and attendance data, such misreporting is a surprisingly common issue throughout the state of Ohio.
After it was discovered that the school had over-reported its enrollment, the Ohio Virtual Academy was ordered to repay $1.6 million of the $60 million of state funding it received for the 2016-2017 academic year. The Ohio Connections Academy faced a bill of $866,000 for a similar infraction. What’s more, as the Columbus City Schools attendance altering scandal makes clear, this issue isn’t restricted to online charter schools.
For many well-intentioned districts in Ohio, avoiding costly mistakes like these will require better data management, which is where a tool like Vinson’s CheckPoint EMIS platform becomes invaluable. CheckPoint helps superintendents and district treasurers gather, organize, and validate enrollment and attendance data with the utmost accuracy and efficiency. It also creates an easily accessible audit trail that documents all stakeholder activity throughout the school year — something ECOT failed to do for years.
Ultimately, CheckPoint helps administrators ensure that their districts not only remain compliant with state and federal data reporting requirements, but also receive the maximum amount of funding to which they are legally entitled.