Ohio Virtual Charter Schools Face Scrutiny Over Attendance

(Photo: Daria Nepriakhina, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Daria Nepriakhina, Creative Commons)

State lawmakers in Ohio have referred allegations to authorities that an online charter school neglected to dis-enroll hundreds of students who were chronically truant in an effort to pad its rolls.

Ohio Virtual Academy maintains that it has followed all state laws concerning reporting such information as well as adhering to enrollment guidelines. The school enrolls about 13,000 students across the state.

Meanwhile, Reps. Bill Hayes and Teresa Fedor, the House Education Committee's top Republican and Democrat, said they have forwarded an anonymous whistleblower email to state Auditor David Yost. The office has recently said attendance fraud will be one of their top priorities. Hayes said he has also informed the Ohio Department of Education about the situation as well as the school, which is performing its own investigation.

The whistleblower email includes a list of over 400 students who are listed as truants. Some students have been listed as such for most of the school year.

The amount a school receives in monthly payments from the state is directly influenced by their enrollment numbers. Close to $1 billion in state money is distributed to charter schools through attendance reporting, including $275 million for online schools that enroll close to 39,000 students, writes Jim Siegel for The Columbus Dispatch.

A report recently released by a liberal education research group found that close to three quarters of charter school funding is reaching schools that perform worse on state report cards than the local school district the child lives in.

According to Education Department spokesman John Charlton, a charter school student is not withdrawn until they have collected 105 consecutive hours of unexcused absences. Julie Carr Smith of WKBN writes that this rule offers flexibility for taking time off, working on weekends, or putting in a lot of hours all at once. It also suggests that a student could only report to school for 10 minutes each month and still be legally enrolled in the school.

While Principal Kristin Stewart said the list does include students with truancy issues, she said the school is working with those students on those problems and it is wrong to assume that the school has mishandled student attendance in any way.

"I can tell you it's not true," she said. "Kids come to us for a lot of reasons, and we work with them to keep them on track. Sometimes they might get truant then we might catch them up and then they get truant again. That list represents the students we are working with on the issue. We're dealing with students who are chronically ill, or are hospitalized, are incarcerated, they have unplanned pregnancies. We want to work with them."

At the same time, an ongoing debate is occurring within the Ohio Statehouse over charter school regulations, which are viewed to be some of the weakest in the country. However, recent legislation has strengthened the law and a pending bill, which holds bipartisan support, has a hearing later this week.

The Senate minority leader in the state would like e-schools to be more attentive when it comes to tracking student attendance. Sen. Joe Schiavoni said the new legislation will show students there are consequences for their actions, adding that not only do they need to be logged on, but they need to be engaged as well.

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