Ohio online charter school takes on state in court, on TV




COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio's largest online charter school has taken a dispute with state education officials over access to attendance records to the courts and the airwaves, raising questions among critics over the use of taxpayer funds to fight state regulators.

Following a judge's order, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow said Thursday it had turned over the sought-after records to the Ohio Department of Education. The department wants to audit the records to determine full-time student enrollment and, from there, future state funding.

Before submitting the records, the school aired a pair of ads around the state painting the department in a negative light — the same department that provides 88 percent to the school's budget, according to state records.

"If ODE closes ECOT, where will I go?" senior Summer Muhaymin asks in one spot. She describes a transient young life sleeping in bus stations and on park benches in which the Electronic Classroom has been her "only constant." The ad concludes with the message: "Ohio Department of Education: Keep your word. Keep ECOT open."

The ads reinforce the claims of a lawsuit filed in a Columbus court. The action alleges the Education Department is perpetrating "a bait and switch by which it seeks to evaluate and 'readjust' ECOT's funding for the 2015-2016 school year based on an improperly-promulgated 'rule.'" It claims purposeful discrimination threatening irreparable harm to the school, which issues about one of every 20 high school diplomas in Ohio.

But the fact ECOT is likely using state education dollars to fund the lawsuit and ad campaign has escalated anger among charter school critics who have long sought more restrictions and transparency in spending by the schools.

"It's unbelievable," said Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni, a Boardman Democrat. "They're supposed to be revving up for the school year, making investments and improving the quality of education. Instead of making investments in students, they're spending thousands of dollars on advertising, thousands of dollars to file the lawsuit, thousands of dollars to pay lobbyists."

Schiavoni sponsored a bill that would prevent charter schools from using public money for advertising, a measure he described as addressing essentially the same issue that private charter operating companies are taking money from public schools.

Neil Clark, a consultant to the school, said the school ran two ads. One ran during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland earlier last month. It aired in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati and statewide on Time Warner. The second ad aired over the last week in Columbus only. It wrapped up earlier this week.

Such ads are not unusual, with the city schools in Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland all having large advertising budgets despite being the default selection for students in those areas, Clark said. K12, another Ohio online school, is also running ads online, on radio, and on TV, he said.

Clark said the Electronic Classroom was forced to take the actions it did to hold the Education Department accountable. He said education officials made promises to the Ohio House and Senate about what e-schools could expect as charter school reforms were being crafted earlier this year.
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