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Lake County Sentinel
Brown asks GAO to look into troubling findings in Ohio Virtual Charter Schools
(WASHINGTON, DC) – U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) joined Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) today in writing to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to urge the Comptroller General to examine policies and practices related to student experiences and outcomes at full-time virtual charter elementary and secondary schools. The Senators’ call comes on the heels of a new Center for American Progress report that shows K12 Inc., the nation’s largest for-profit virtual school operator, spent over $20 million on compensation for the top six executives in fiscal year 2017 while students continued to perform significantly worse than students receiving in-person instruction in traditional public schools.

The Senators said there is little accountability and transparency when it comes to for-profit and virtual charter schools, leading to scandals like that of Electronic Classrooms of Tomorrow (ECOT) in Ohio. ECOT defrauded families and taxpayers by manipulating attendance numbers, as well as years of poor student outcomes and low graduation rates, before state and local regulators acted. 

“Research on virtual charter schools shows that students attending such schools perform much worse than their peers receiving in-person instruction in traditional, brick-and-mortar public schools,” the Senators wrote in their letter to GAO. “In order to better understand the reforms needed to ensure student success with the growth of virtual charter schools, we request that GAO study the student experience at these schools.”

According to the report, Ohio has the second highest percentage of students served by a virtual school, using 2013-14 school year data (2.2%). Some of the key findings in the report include:

· While students attending virtual charter schools continue to perform significantly worse than students attending traditional public schools, K12 Inc. – the nation’s largest operator of virtual charter schools – spent over $37 million on advertising and $20 million on compensation for the top six executives in fiscal year 2017.

· K12 Inc. operates the Ohio Virtual Academy, which received nearly $74 million in public funding in FY 2016 despite the fact that its schools had lower graduation rates than Columbus City Schools and Ohio Public Schools on average. K12 Inc. must repay $1.6 million in funding for its enrollment discrepancies for school year 2016-2017.

· Similarly, ECOT had significant differences between the students it claimed it enrolled and those that it could document participation through login data. For the 2015-2016 school year, ECOT could only account for just over 40 percent of its students – only 6,300 of its 15,300 total enrollment. In 2016-2017, ECOT could only account for just over 80 percent of its total student enrollment. ECOT is being held liable to repay nearly $80 million for over counting its enrollment – $60 million for the 2015-2016 school year and $19 million for 2016-2017. 

Brown said it is concerning that Ohio is still turning a blind eye to the practices undertaken by online for-profit schools, which harm students and bilk taxpayers. In fact, many of the same students harmed by ECOT’s abrupt closure have turned to the Ohio Virtual Academy, whose parent company, K12 Inc., has a record of prioritizing executive profits over student outcomes.

Brown has long led efforts to increase transparency and oversight of Ohio’s charter schools and has worked to hold ECOT accountable and to help Ohio school districts who have been hurt by ECOT’s actions. ECOT closed in January following findings of mismanagement, which included inflated enrollment numbers. Since 2000, ECOT received more than $130 million in federal funding.

Following the ECOT scandal in January, Brown asked the Ohio Department of Education and State Board of Education for specific steps Ohio could take to ensure ECOT students would be able to transition to new schools. He also wrote to the Department of Education (DOE) Inspector General Kathleen Tighe calling for a prompt investigation into ECOT and the for-profit charter school industry. Brown’s letter followed the Ohio State Auditor Dave Yost’s release of an audit finding that ECOT withheld critical student data to secure more state and federal funding, which Yost referred to Tighe and DOE.

In August, Brown introduced legislation to ensure any federal funds recovered from ECOT were returned to the school districts that lost them to ECOT in the first place. Brown’s bill, the Putting Students First Act, would require any federal funds the U.S. government might recover from ECOT or other bad actors who misuse education funds be returned to Ohio’s students instead of the U.S. Treasury’s general fund.
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POSTED 09/25/2018   21:37
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