An online charter school serving Ohio residents ages 5 to 22 is under scrutiny by the state for allegedly overreporting its enrollment figures to receive more funds, the Associated Press (AP) reported Dec. 3.

John Ledingham, a spokesman for the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, or ECOT, said the school is working to ensure the figures it submits to the state are accurate. But officials from the Ohio Department of Education have received allegations that ECOT was submitting the names of students who weren’t attending, said Kim Norris, a spokeswoman for state auditor Jim Petro.

The department has requested an audit of ECOT to clear up the situation.

Whether the incongruities are deliberate or merely the result of human error, the school’s example raises an important question for education policy-makers: how to ensure the validity of students enrolled in “virtual” schools.

As a public charter school, ECOT receives $4,633 from the state for every child enrolled. On October 30, ECOT officials reported that, although more than 2,900 students were enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade, the school was receiving funding based on the state’s count of 2,270 students.

But “there were concerns raised about the number of students attending versus the number of names submitted” to the state Department of Education for funding, Norris told AP, although she declined to elaborate.

Some school officials—such as Carolyn Funk, treasurer of Youngstown schools—question the validity of ECOT’s enrollment figures.

“I don’t think we’ll ever know. There appears to be very little oversight [governing] community schools,” she said.

David Varda, associate state superintendent for school finance, said he wants to see a system the state can use to count and contact ECOT students to ensure accurate reporting of figures.

“The agreed-upon thing is that, three or four times a year, the auditor will go in and wade through [the school’s] data,” he said.

Like most charter schools, ECOT is a publicly funded, privately operated institution that is free from some state regulations. Students who are enrolled in ECOT work on computers in their homes and communicate with teachers by eMail. ECOT is available to all students, ages 5 to 22, who are residents of Ohio.

ECOT does not charge for tuition or for the use of any of its equipment. Students registered in the school receive a free Compaq iPaq computer, monitor, and multi-function device (a unit that functions as a scanner, copier, and printer), as well as the additional phone line to be used exclusively for ECOT.

Columbus-based Altair Learning Management runs the school’s business operations and reportedly receives 10 percent of the school’s $13 million in revenues.

“We operate under a different system than other charter schools,” Ledingham said. “Initially, we were supposed to make an estimate in September and report our enrollment data each semester, but after the first reporting session, the [state] Department of Education enacted a procedure that requires ECOT to report on a monthly basis.”

As in other schools, Ledingham admitted, inaccuracies do occur.

“Sometimes there are students who say they want to attend and then decide to stay with a bricks-and-mortar school. So, each month we have to coordinate with the 600 school districts in the state of Ohio, and we have to send faxes asking if we have the correct enrollment information,” he explained.

As of Dec. 7, Ledingham estimated that ECOT had 2,270 students online, meaning they are using school computers and have phone lines installed specifically for ECOT. “We last reported an enrollment of 2602,” he said. That is down from October’s 2,900 figure.

What happened to the remaining students? Ledingham attributed the discrepancies to problems getting equipment to each interested student.

ECOT initially estimated a need for 2,000 computers, Ledingham explained. He said he believes the initial 2,000 machines currently serve about 2,300 students, due to two-child households where siblings share one ECOT computer.

“You can’t just walk into a computer store and get those computers. They are specially configured machines, and we order them in lots of 1,000,” Ledingham said.

Ledingham admitted that ECOT officials underestimated the response they would get to their program. “It’s a pioneering program, and there was very little data around to go on when we were estimating how many computers we would need,” he said.

“I think everybody’s been kind of bowled over by the demand from parents,” said Clint Satow, director of the Ohio Community School Center, a nonprofit group that aids charter schools.

The enrollment dispute isn’t the only setback the fledgling program has faced. On Dec. 1, ECOT Superintendent Coletta Musick announced she was leaving her post over disagreements with board members on administrative matters.

School officials would not comment on the exact circumstances behind Musick’s departure. But according to William Lager, chief executive of Altair Learning Management, Musick was suspended with pay in mid-November because she failed to develop curricula for the school quickly enough. At the time she left, Musick was earning $96,000 a year.

“This is a start-up business. No start-up business is without glitches,” Ledingham said.

Ledingham does not believe that online schools are any more susceptible to reporting inaccuracies than traditional schools.

“In earlier grades, ECOT requires a commitment on the part of the parents, so there should be that level of surveillance. Also, we created student electronic portfolios that track when students log on, how long they use the systems, what study programs they’ve picked up, and so on,” he said.

“In theory, it is really not that much different [than a brick-and-mortar school]. If you really want to fool the system, it does not matter if your school is electronic or not.”

Kathi Baldwin, education technologist at Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, which operates a virtual school called Pathways to Learning, said the question of enrollment would be resolved if online schools took more care to screen their students.

“I can say for sure that online education is not right for every student,” she said. “That is why mass statewide enrollments are not right. Each and every kid needs to be screened. If that takes place, then there is no way to make up students.

“If addressing the needs of kids comes first, then the funding issue will fall into place.”

Links:

Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow
http://www.ecotohio.org

Ohio Department of Education
http://www.ode.state.oh.us

Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District
http://www.mat-su.k12.ak.us