In a conventional brick-and-mortar school, you can walk inside and see how many students are sitting at their desks and receiving instruction. In an online charter school, you can’t.
And that is the crux of the battle being waged between the state’s largest online charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, and the Ohio Department of Education, which had to go to court to pry loose ECOT attendance records as part of the agency’s effort to determine if students actually are receiving the 920 hours of education that state law requires them to have each year.
Determining whether students are being educated not only is important for the students but also for taxpayers, who expect to get something of value for the millions of dollars that are being paid to e-schools. In ECOT’s case, that amounts to a whopping $106 million annually.
ECOT believes it deserves compensation merely for providing learning opportunities to students, regardless of whether students take advantage of those opportunities. The Ohio Department of Education and taxpayers want educational results. But ECOT’s academic record is dismal, with state report-card grades consisting mostly of F’s and a four-year graduation rate of not quite 39 percent.
The fact that student participation in e-schools is hard to verify, and that ECOT’s performance is so poor argues for a different way to pay e-schools, one that ensures that taxpayers are buying student success, not student failure.
Last week, Ohio Auditor Dave Yost and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank, called for Ohio’s lawmakers to consider paying e-schools based on the educational results they achieve rather than hard-to-verify attendance numbers.
In an address to the first statewide charter-school summit on Thursday, Yost said education is more than just ensuring that a student spends a certain amount of time sitting in a desk or logged into a computer. What Ohioans want for their education dollars is an educated citizen. So the old-fashioned practice of paying for attendance should be replaced by paying for educational results.
In an article in the Fordham Institute’s latest Ohio Gadfly Daily, the authors outline how this idea has been applied in Utah, New Hampshire, Florida and Minnesota (http://bit.ly/2aGSfKL).
In Utah, where students can take online courses in grades 9-12, providers of the courses are paid in three steps. They receive 25 percent of the total payment when a student enrolls. They receive another 25 percent when the student demonstrates continuing participation. They are paid the final 50 percent when the student completes and passes the course.
New Hampshire divides a given course of instruction into smaller competencies, each of which must be mastered by the student in order to pass the course. The state pays the provider based on the percentage of the competencies the student demonstrates. If the student achieves all of the competencies for a course, the school receives the total appropriation for that course. But if the student passed only half of the competencies, the school receives half of the total appropriation for the course.
Florida and Minnesota use different methods from these, but they are based on the same basic concept of paying only for verified academic results.
Of course, there is no reason why the same approach couldn’t be taken with brick-and-mortar charter schools, not to mention conventional public schools.
Paying based on outcomes eliminates disputes about attendance and aligns incentives in a way that maximizes benefits for students and for taxpayers.
It’s an idea Ohio lawmakers should explore.