Ohio needs competition and high standards to elevate its digital learning marketplace

One could argue that 2011 has been the year of “digital learning”
across America but in fact digital learning has been big business in
Ohio for more than a decade. Lessons from that experience should inform
the Buckeye State’s approach to new digital learning opportunities that
are generating excitement and optimism.

In September, the White House announced its “Digital Promise” campaign, while a number of states have been embracing initiatives and campaigns in this realm, aided and encouraged by the Digital Learning Council, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, and Fordham itself (via our “Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning” series.)

Ohio’s biennial budget launched the Digital Learning Task Force
charged with ensuring that the state’s “legislative environment is
conducive to and supportive of the educators and digital innovators at
the heart of this transformation.” There have been many conferences this
year on fresh digital-learning possibilities and prominent innovators
in this field – people like Sal Kahn, Tom Vander Ark, John Chubb, Rick
Hess, Susan Patrick, and John Danner—have been much in demand to offer
insights and share possibilities with Ohioans. 

Education visionary Paul Hill captured the opportunities when he wrote for Fordham:

Capacities like these open up vast possibilities for
improved instructional delivery. Students who do not want to attend
school can access entirely self-managed online learning. Self-managed
‘virtual’ schools can match a student’s interests, learning rate, and
even work schedule. Students can also take advantage of blended or
hybrid schooling that uses computer-based and online resources to
deliver some coursework while also providing in-person teacher-student
interaction, and relying on teachers to act as diagnosticians and
mentors. These ‘blended’ schools can also individualize instruction
while assuring parents that a responsible adult is keeping an eye on
their children.

Digital learning opportunities offer ways to help teachers and parents do a better job of educating children AND at less cost.

But those promises have been on the table for a long time. Indeed, it
was this dual promise that encouraged lawmakers in Ohio and other
states to birth statewide e-schools in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The best known of these is the Florida Virtual School, which now educates over 120,000 students from across Florida and 49 other states.

Ohio took a different approach than Florida. Instead of a single
statewide e-school, it created a marketplace of e-schools. That sector
is now made up of 27 on-line schools serving some 33,000 students. Most
of them are small charter schools, authorized by their districts and
focused on drop-out recovery. But five large e-schools dominate Ohio’s
e-school marketplace with more than 75 percent of the students enrolled.
Because the state currently has a moratorium on new e-schools that
isn’t set to be lifted until 2013, this quintet is likely to continue
dominating Ohio’s e-school market for students and the funding that
follows them for at least the next two school years. 

Table 1 lists Ohio’s big five e-schools by enrollment and state funding in 2010-11.

Table 1: Ohio’s Big Five E-Schools by 2010-11 enrollment and state funding

 

School Name 2010-11 Student Enrollment 2010-11 State Funding
ECOT (Electronic Classrooms of Tomorrow) 10,454 $67,507,250
Ohio Virtual Academy 9,475 $58,692,073
Ohio Connections Academy 2,676 $16,110,928
TRECA Digital Academy 2,093 $12,735,998
Virtual Community School of Ohio 1,339 $9,725,728
Total: 26,037 $164,771,997

Source: Ohio Department of Education: Final Received for FY11

 Ohio Department of Education: Interactive Local Report Card

 If all 33,000 children currently
enrolled in e-schools in Ohio were in one school district it would make
up the state’s third largest school district just after Columbus and
Cleveland. The for-profit ECOT is itself the state’s 15th largest school district while the for-profit Ohio Virtual Academy is 19th.
As Table 2 below shows, when it comes to per pupil expenditures both
ECOT and the Ohio Virtual Academy spend far less than do traditional
school districts. In fact, their per pupil expenditures are about half
of what urban districts like Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati spend.

Table 2: Ohio’s 20 Largest School Districts by enrollment in 2010-11 with Per Pupil Expenditure and Academic Designation

District Name 2010-11 Enrollment 2010-11 Per Pupil Expenditure 2010-11 Academic Designation
Columbus City 49616 $14,967 Continuous Improvement
Cleveland Municipal City 43202 $15,072 Academic Watch
Cincinnati City 32009 $14,067 Effective
Akron City 22603 $14,032 Continuous Improvement
Toledo City 22277 $13,859 Continuous Improvement
South-Western City 19336 $10,248 Excellent
Lakota Local 17409 $9,387 Excellent with Distinction
Olentangy Local 16263 $9,465 Excellent with Distinction
Hilliard City 14945 $11,398 Excellent with Distinction
Dayton City 14174 $14,047 Continuous Improvement
Westerville City 14105 $10,890 Excellent with Distinction
Dublin City 13614 $13,013 Excellent with Distinction
Parma City 11251 $11,399 Excellent
Mason City 10503 $10,125 Excellent with Distinction
ECOT  10454  $7,615 Continuous Improvement
Pickerington Local 10326 $9,865 Excellent with Distinction
Canton City 9750 $11,307 Continuous Improvement
Fairfield City 9608 $8,906 Effective
Ohio Virtual Academy 9475 $6,921 Effective
Hamilton City 9444 $9,191 Continuous Improvement

Source: Ohio Department of Education: Interactive Local Report Card

Ohio Department of Education: 2011 District Preliminary Ranking List.

E-schools have the obvious advantages of not having to pay for
buildings and all of the associated maintenance expenses. Nor do they
have to pay for the daily busing of students or for lunches and
security. Done well, e-schools can plow their spare resources into
things like content, technology, and expert supplemental teaching.
Despite their promise, however, Ohio’s e-school performance has been
mixed. Some do well on the state’s academic measures year after year
while others have struggled to perform any better than moribund district
schools long criticized for failing students.

As they’ve grown and profited, e-schools have naturally become adept
at politics. E-schools, like district-centered teacher unions and
professional associations, fight hard for their self interest (see
yesterday’s Washington Post story on this subject.) In Ohio, for example, William Lager, ECOT’s founder and CEO of Altair Learning Management, has donated
more than $1 million to candidates (in both parties) in the last
decade. Ask any politically astute person in Columbus and they will tell
you that e-schools are now formidable political players in Ohio’s
education and budgetary debates, and that their influence goes beyond
just issues of digital learning.

The fact is that e-schools in Ohio have become big business. This has
allowed them to compete effectively against other major education
players like teacher unions, the school board association, and other
established interest groups. Unfortunately, they also appear at
times—like so many other one-time-pioneers-turned-vested-interest—far
keener to protect their own turf, jobs, and money, than they are in
seeding and pushing a second wave of digital learning reforms. 

Ohio’s e-school space doesn’t need protectionism. It needs
competition matched with high standards for academic performance. Ohio,
like other states, is on the cusp of a second wave of digital learning
opportunities and innovations, if these efforts are given the
encouragement and space to operate and flourish. For this to happen,
Ohio needs to proceed with opening up its market to quality outside
digital providers while also drafting or incorporating high quality
performance standards for all– current and future – digital learning
programs. If Ohio gets this balance right it could become the nation’s
leader in creating a high-performing digital learning environment for
the state’s children in coming years and decades.

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