An honest look at Ohio's e-schools
“Our blog tough on OH e-schools; Innovation OH report=misleading hit job” – that’s how Bill Tucker, managing director of Education Sector, a nonpartisan education policy think tank based in Washington, D.C., contrasted his organization’s recent blog series about Ohio’s e-schools with an e-school report from Innovation Ohio, a new Ohio-based public policy organization. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
This contrast is important, especially because at face value both analyses seem to land on similar ground.
Ed Sector wrapped up its blog series by saying:
As online learning continues to grow and expand in ways that we may not even be able to envision, strong oversight to ensure both high quality learning experiences and accountability for public funds are essential.
Innovation Ohio says in its report:
…it is critical that legislators see to it that public money is spent wisely and not wasted on “alternatives” that deliver even worse results than the traditional schools they were designed to supersede. In the absence of strict accountability and oversight, e-schools can be a cruel hoax on the children, parents, and taxpayers who were counting on them.
The similarities end there.
From May 2 to 12, Education Sector lifted up data and information about Ohio’s e-schools on its blog, The Quick and the Ed, concluding with a few policy lessons. The Fordham Institute has long analyzed the performance of Ohio’s e-schools as a sector in our annual local report card analysis (see last year’s analysis here), but Ed Sector’s blog series broke new ground in how it disaggregated and presented e-school data. Tucker and his colleagues shared new and different analyses of e-school data, and created interactive charts that help readers better visualize the trends and information.
The Ed Sector team first profiled the Buckeye State’s e-school landscape by breaking schools down into three categories: statewide schools that accept students from across Ohio, regional schools that draw students from a limited number of districts, and local schools that serve only students from a host district. These distinctions are important and too often glossed over; few people realize the vast majority (20 of 27) of Ohio’s e-schools are not big, statewide operations, but rather are smaller district-run programs. Next, they examined whether the size of an e-school correlates with its performance. Ed Sector’s conclusion was no.
Ed Sector then looked at the demographics of e-school students and student mobility in Ohio’s online schools. While they concluded that there is no “average” e-school student in Ohio, the data did support a few conclusions. Ohio’s statewide e-schools serve special education and minority populations similar to the state average, but their students are (to varying degrees) more economically disadvantaged than their peers across the state. Demographics of students at local and regional e-schools tend to reflect the demographics of the communities the students come from (with some exceptions for special education at local e-schools).
As to mobility, Ed Sector found that 30 percent of Ohio e-school students were enrolled in their school for less than one year and just 11 percent were enrolled for more than three years. Statewide e-schools had more students enrolled for one year or longer than did their local and regional peers.
Ed Sector’s report concludes with five policy recommendations, applicable here and beyond the Buckeye State:
- Use actual student performance, not facsimiles or assumptions, to drive regulation of e-schools;
- Tailor authorizing and oversight of e-schools to fit the online learning model and develop reporting and accountability measures accordingly;
- Eliminate “accountability-free zones” in which district-sponsored e-schools that serve as drop-out prevention or credit-recovery schools can skirt state accountability rules;
- Help families and students make good school choices; and
- Ensure transparency about who operates and governs an e-school. (To illustrate this point, Ed Sector offered up a gift card to the first blog reader who could tell, from looking at the school’s website, who actually operates OHDELA -- the Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy. It’s a challenging exercise; try it for yourself.)
A few pages into Innovation Ohio’s report, I was pleasantly surprised by its fairness and factual accuracy. But ultimately the report, tellingly titled Ohio’s E-schools: Funding Failure; Coddling Contributors, relies on the organization’s go-to approach of conflating facts and misrepresenting information to support IO’s foregone conclusion that Ohio’s e-schools are “nothing short of a disaster” and that the state’s failure to reign them in stems from the political influence and contributions of a few e-school operators.
Ohio’s e-schools are certainly not a “disaster” (see Ed Sector’s blog series for evidence), but I won’t quibble with IO’s allegations about the political influence of e-school operators (after all, the Ohio House did make secretive changes to the budget that would sweeten the pot for these for-profit operators and others). What I take issue with is how IO, a supposedly nonpartisan organization, consistently presents data out of context and makes incorrect assumptions in order to deliver a partisan attack.
The mistruths in the report are plenty (a few are exposed in this short take from the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools), but the most egregious is this: that e-schools cost Ohio more than traditional schools. IO is correct that e-schools receive an average of $6,320 per pupil in funding from the state (via deductions from their students’ home school districts). The report goes on to say that this amount is 95 percent more than traditional schools receive from the state. This may be technically true, to a degree. One-hundred percent of e-school funding flows from state coffers; but a good chunk of district funding comes from local taxpayers and doesn’t pass through the state treasurer. Does that mean that local tax dollars shouldn’t and don’t figure into the equation when policymakers, the media, and the public are assessing education spending?
For example, last year Columbus City Schools spent $14,904 per pupil, according to the Ohio Department of Education. About 30 percent ($4,518) was picked up by the state; local tax dollars covered another 55 percent; the federal government paid for the rest. I am a property owner and taxpayer in Columbus, and when I see those numbers I don’t for a moment think my district is saving me any money over the $6,320 that the state flows to e-schools. Or take Orange City Schools, near Cleveland, which spent more per pupil than any Ohio district last year, $21,191 –more than three times what Ohio e-schools receive to educate a single student. The state of Ohio contributed almost 20 percent ($4,174) of that and local taxpayers picked up nearly 80 percent ($16,952). Any right-minded observer would deduce that taxpayers are spending less to educate e-school students than their peers in Orange City.
In the end, Ed Sector produced a thoughtful analysis of Ohio e-schools, putting accurate data in the appropriate context and drawing conclusions worth paying attention to, especially as the Ohio Senate grapples with many of the accountability issues Ed Sector confronts. Meanwhile, Innovation Ohio offered up another sloppy attack job of the current administration, timed purely for political reasons and full of half-truths, that doesn’t hold water under even the slightest scrutiny.
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