Maintain honesty at online schools

After many years in which Ohio’s charter school regulations were, to put it charitably, a mess, one might suppose state officials would have gotten things straightened out.

Alas, no.

With the dust still not settled regarding one charter, the online Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, state officials need to be doing their homework to avoid a similar dilemma in the future.

Leaving thousands of students uncertain where to turn in their pursuit of high school diplomas, ECOT shut down in January. The operation crashed over state officials’ insistence the school verify the enrollment it claimed in collecting per-pupil state subsidies. ECOT officials were unable to do that.

In the end, the company had to repay $60 million in improperly collected state support. It has been ordered to repay another $19 million.

Exactly what went wrong may remain to be seen. State Auditor Dave Yost, who played a leading role in calling ECOT to account, wants to ensure its records are preserved in case they are needed for a criminal investigation. It is believed some ECOT officials manipulated attendance data in attempts to ensure state funding was collected.

Unfortunately, state officials’ lack of reasonable yet detailed requirements for online students may have helped ECOT game the system.

There have been calls that specific requirements for charter schools claiming state reimbursement be required to prove not just that students are enrolled, but that they be actively involved. Merely signing on to an online class cannot be considered adequate. That could lead to students signing on, then doing something else until the class session ends, when they sign off.

Opponents of accountability may protest that keeping track of students’ interaction would be difficult, if not impossible. Nonsense. The technology exists.

The ECOT fiasco should have ended long before it did. In a similar manner to which they cracked down on charter schools using traditional classrooms, officials in Columbus need to find ways to keep online schools honest, then enforce them rigorously.