Friday, August 25, 2017

How to Turn an Ineffective Charter Sponsor into a High Performing One: Make ECOT a Dropout School

In a little-noticed detail of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow's (ECOT) attempt to become a Dropout Recovery School, potentially the greatest beneficiary of the shift would be ECOT's sponsor -- the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West.

Here's how.

Under current law and the school's current configuration, the ESC of Lake Erie West is hammered on its sponsor evaluation grades because such a large percentage of the students it oversees come from ECOT. According to the Plain Dealer, "Poor grades, largely from the 15,000-student ECOT, dragged that ESC's rating down to 'ineffective.'"

ECOT and its allies tried to change the House Bill 2 provision that weighted enrollment during the evaluation because they wanted the 15,000 student school's grade to be counted just as heavily as a school with 60 or 100 students.

The legislature did not grant that request, so ECOT's poor grades have a tremendously negative impact on the ESC of Lake Erie West's ability to sponsor schools and collect their 3 percent sponsorship fee.

This put the ESC in a bind because as an "ineffective" rated sponsor, it had to improve its rating in three years or get shut down, yet if they cut ECOT loose, they would lose about $3 million in fees they currently collect -- a gravy train for the ESC.

Switching the school to a dropout recovery school solves the problem. Why? Because performance is so dreadful at dropout recovery schools, and state regulation so lax, that even ECOT's poor performance would grant them exceedingly high grades under the much more lenient dropout recovery accountability system.

So the weighted system that hurt the ESC when ECOT was getting Ds and Fs under the regular report card will not help the ESC because those Ds and Fs will turn into As under the more lenient system.

And all they need to do is change the school's designation.

For example, ECOT's graduation rate of 39.6 percent rates as a very low F on the regular state report card. However, under the dropout recovery report card, that 39.6 percent four-year graduation rate "exceeds standards", which means it will be graded on the sponsor report card the same as an A on the regular report card. The ESC will then have that "A" weighted by the 15,000 students in ECOT, making the A a kind of Mega-A.

So, not only does this let ECOT suddenly promote itself as receiving the highest grades possible by the state (even though there's no real improvement), but it allows the ESC to continue collecting millions all while having its sponsorship grade improve dramatically, potentially allowing it to collect millions more in sponsorship fees from additional schools.

But nothing has changed at ECOT.

Just because dropout recovery schools are worse performing than ECOT doesn't mean ECOT is high performing. It means that once again, ECOT is gaming a system its politically connected founder, William Lager, helped create with legislative blessing.

Those who suffer most are the students and parents at ECOT who will undoubtedly be roped into thinking ECOT is a high-performing school for their kids, even though it is a national embarrassment.

Only in Ohio's feebly regulated dropout recovery school system would ECOT be considered anything other than a failure.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

ECOT's Latest Gambit May Already Be In Trouble.

I wondered when this was coming. But apparently, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow -- the most scandal-ridden charter school in the state that owes taxpayers $60 million in overpayments from just one year of instruction -- now wants to be classified as a dropout recovery school.

The problem is, they can't do it unless they once again manipulate student counts. They either have to suddenly drop about 1,200 students off their rolls, or find thousands more students. While that can certainly happen, my guess is they will have to perform all kinds of enrollment gymnastics to do it. Of course, they've been pretty good at that in the past.

Why would they have to do this contortion? Because as a charter school, they have to accept everyone who comes through their virtual door, just like a local public school. They can't just drop a bunch of kids so they can get a new state designation that can save their financial bacon.

Why would they want to do this? Changing to a dropout recovery school means that the state can never really close ECOT, and their grades won't hurt their sponsor -- the Education Service Center of Lake Erie West. Oh, and they can just keep expanding and expanding without fear of recourse.

Dropout recovery schools have been a major embarrassment to Ohio for years. And they are the recipients of one of the last bastions of legislative loopholes for politically connected charter school operators. In order to avoid being shut down, they can improve their graduation and test passage rates by 10 percent a year in two consecutive years. However, this benefits the worst performing schools because improving from a 1.7 percent graduation rate to a 2.1 percent graduation rate over two years is much easier (it can mean simply getting 1 or 2 more kids to graduate) than going from 40 percent to 48 percent.

So, ECOT can't graduate 4 out of 10 kids, which is a failing grade as a start-up charter school as they are currently classified. But their putrid graduation rate would "exceed expectations" as a dropout recovery school.

Kind of tells you just how bad our dropout recovery regulations are, doesn't it?

Of course ECOT wouldn't answer questions about the switch, like why it took them 20 years to suddenly realize they would better serve kids as a dropout recovery school. But here's the other thing: to be classified as a dropout recovery school, the ECOT contract with their sponsor now says that "50 percent of students must be 16 or older, and behind by at least one grade level, or have experienced a crisis that interferes with them attending a traditional school."

State regulations say that dropout recovery schools -- in order to have the designation -- need to have the following requirements:

Any community school in which the majority of students are enrolled in a dropout prevention and recovery program operated by the school that meets the following criteria:
a) The program serves only students not younger than sixteen years of age and not older than twenty-one years of age;
b) The program enrolls students who, at the time of their initial enrollment, either, or both, are at least one grade level behind their cohort age groups or experience crises that significantly interfere with their academic progress such that they are prevented from continuing their traditional programs;
c) The program requires students to attain at least the applicable score designated for each of the assessments prescribed under division (B)(1) of section 3301.0710 of the Revised Code or, to the extent prescribed by rule of the state board of education under division (D)(6) of section 3301.0712 of the Revised Code, division (B)(2) of that section;
d) The program develops an individual career plan for the student that specifies the student's matriculating to a two-year degree program, acquiring a business and industry credential, or entering an apprenticeship;
e) The program provides counseling and support for the student related to the plan developed under division (A)(4) of that section during the remainder of the student's high school experience; and
f) The program's instructional plan demonstrates how the academic content standards adopted by the state board of education under section 3301.079 of the Revised Code will be taught and assessed;

I don't think ECOT -- as currently constituted -- can meet this definition, unless they un-enroll a bunch of kids.

According to ECOT's student enrollment count from October 2016 -- the latest count data available -- ECOT had 13,895 kids enrolled. Of that, 8,167 kids were in grades K-10. That means nearly 6 in 10 kids were likely under 16 years of age, let alone behind by a grade level or going through a crisis.

Now, those other non-age requirements are pretty simple to achieve, but in order for ECOT -- as currently constituted -- to meet those definitions, they have to drop at least 1,200 students and argue that every single 11th and 12th grader in their school is behind by a grade level or in a crisis.

So they will probably need to un-enroll more kids.

Of course, they could also target their ads toward recruiting more 16+ dropout students. But in either case, they will have to once again manipulate their enrollment figures to figure out a way to continue plundering taxpayer money.


Monday, August 7, 2017

Don't Worry. Even With Additional 12% Cut, ECOT Still Gets Paid. A Lot.

In another drip in the leak that has become the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow scandal, the Ohio Department of Education last week announced that it would withhold an additional 12 percent of the school's payments for which it has billed the state.

The idea that another 12 percent pay cut will ECOT out of business is folly. How can I say that? Because I looked at the data.

According to the school's bill it sent to the state for payments last month, ECOT was set to be paid $8.1 million in July for the 14,207 kids it claimed to be educating. Annualized, that would be $97.4 million a year -- not much of a cut from the $103 million they were paid last year.

However, because the state found that in the 2015-2016 year ECOT could only account for about 40 percent of the kids it actually billed the state for educating, the Ohio Department of Education is collecting $60 million from the school -- $30 million for this school year and another $30 million next year.

This is being done in $2.5 million, monthly increments.

So instead of about $97 million, ECOT was set to be paid $67 million this school year. Another 12 percent reduction would make the payment now about $55 million.

That seems like quite a pay cut, doesn't it? And there's little doubt that it is. However, ECOT has cut its staff in half, which means that to pay all their teachers, it will cost them $11 million. That leaves $44 million for them to spend on administrators, their politically connected founder William Lager and computer-related expenses. Remember that ECOT is a virtual shcool. It doesn't pay for buses, lunch ladies, janitors, HVAC, or any of the other myriad, substantial costs brick and mortar schools contend with every year.

But here's the rub of it: the per pupil funding.

If ECOT actually has 14,207 kids, their per pupil state funding has been cut from $6,854 to $3,908 -- about the average net state funding for local school districts. However, if they continue to only be educating full time 40 percent of that figure (about 5,825), as they were found to have done in 2015-2016 (and, according to the letter from ODE, it appears there remains a concern about this inflation), then their per pupil state funding has gone from $16,717 to $9,531.

To give you an idea of how much that is, there are 8 school districts in the state that spend more than $16,717 per pupil, including all state, federal and local money put together, with the highest being the high-performing, wealthy Orange City school district in Cuyahoga County at $21,714. Only two districts -- Orange and Beachwood -- spent more than that per equivalent pupil.

There are about 130 districts that spend more than $9,531 per equivalent pupil and 435 that spend more than $9,531 per pupil. So while, yes, this is a per pupil cut however you look at it, ECOT would still be able to spend per pupil what Newton Falls spends in Trumbull County.

But this all comes down to the actual number of kids ECOT has. If the number of kids remaining is closer to the 5,825, then the school will still clean up from the taxpayers. If they're closer to the 14,207, then they will be (finally) more in line with their actual costs. 

The point though is this: Even with all these fines, ECOT will be able to survive -- maybe not quite as high on the hog as its founder is used to, but it will survive.

And now that the Ohio Republican Party, who has collected millions from Lager over the years, was shamed into returning $76,000 in donations, here's hoping the state's politics are turning away from this failed virtual school experiment at ECOT, where not even 40 percent of students receive a diploma and corruption rules the roost.