Thursday, August 9, 2018
Ohio had authority to calculate a giant online charter school’s funding using student participation data rather than only enrollment, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in the latest blow to the now-dismantled e-school.
The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, which had been among the nation’s largest virtual schools, closed to its roughly 12,000 students in January but remains of interest to prosecutors reviewing audit findings and politicians raising accountability issues in a midterm election year.
The Associated Press reported in April allegations by a former ECOT employee that the school intentionally inflated attendance data in order to draw more state money, a claim largely validated in state audit findings that have been referred to criminal investigators.
ECOT had argued in court that Ohio’s Department of Education overstepped its authority when it used student learning time to determine the school owed the state a $60 million refund from the 2015-16 school year. But justices sided with the state in a 4-2 decision affirming a lower court’s ruling, concluding the department acted within its authority under Ohio law.
“We determine that [the law] is unambiguous and authorizes ODE to require an e-school to provide data of the duration of a student’s participation to substantiate that school’s funding,” Justice Patrick Fischer wrote for the majority.
ECOT attorney Marion Little said the school was disappointed but would continue to pursue its administrative challenges to the Education Department in lower courts.
“The two dissenting opinions extensively detail why ECOT should have prevailed and why ECOT, the auditor’s office, even ODE, had always applied an enrollment methodology,” he said.
The department had argued that ECOT was interpreting state law as though it could receive full public funding for students without providing documentation to prove they were being educated. An attorney representing the department during arguments at the court in February likened the situation to the Internal Revenue Service accepting a person’s expenses at face value for years and later asking them for receipts as documentation.
“Ultimately, this is what’s best for students and taxpayers alike,” said Brittany Halpin, the department’s spokeswoman. “We’re pleased the Ohio Supreme Court agreed with the department’s interpretation of the law, and we remain committed to ensuring that all community schools receive their correct funding.”
The high court concluded that when lawmakers stated each student could receive no more than 10 hours of credit per school day, they set up a need for documentation of students’ activities.
“This calculation can be made only by referring to records that contain evidence of the duration of a student’s participation in learning opportunities,” Fischer wrote.