COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Many of the students enrolled in Ohio's largest online charter school when it closed in January have transferred to other schools, but state officials don't know what happened with about 2,300 students.
Nearly 11,400 students were listed as enrolled at the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow when it shut down mid-school-year amid a dispute with the state over public funding and how student participation was tallied, and about 20 percent are not re-enrolled or accounted for, according to Ohio Department of Education data obtained by The Associated Press.
About 1,300 in that group are students were younger than 18. About 1,000 are 18 or older, meaning they wouldn't be required to attend school under state law.
That's not to say those students stopped being educated. But ODE can't determine how many students dropped out, because some students might have moved out of Ohio, entered homeschooling or a program to prepare for a high-school equivalency test such as a GED test, or started attending private schools in a way that doesn't have to be reported to the state, department spokeswoman Brittany Halpin said.
She said confirming their status is a tricky task complicated further because the department doesn't get personal information about students, such as names and how to contact them.
The department is still working with school districts, which keep that information, to determine the status of all ECOT students "not only because many of these students are of compulsory school age, but because we want all Ohio students to receive a high quality education and graduate," Halpin said.
Republican state Sen. Peggy Lehner, the chair of the Senate Education Committee, said the difficulty in tracking the redistribution of ECOT students bothers her but doesn't surprise her, considering that the state concluded ECOT was getting funding for far more students than its participation data justified.
"I think this just illustrates the whole problem that we've had with ECOT," she said. "You not only can't tell how long the students signed on, you can't even tell for sure if they even exist, so I am not surprised that there are students that they can't track."
It shows why the state needs to take steps to be more diligent with the e-school sector, she said.
"If we're paying to educate kids, then we should both know where they are and if they're getting educated, and if they aren't then there's a real problem," she said.
Democrats have made similar arguments in criticizing Republicans who control the Legislature and state government for accepting campaign funding from donors connected to ECOT and not intervening sooner.
The school shut down after state officials concluded ECOT should repay nearly $80 million in unjustified public funding. ECOT has challenged how Ohio tallied student participation to determine that, and it awaits a state Supreme Court ruling in that case.
Halpin said ODE has worked with students' families, schools districts, community schools and ECOT's sponsor to answer questions and ensure that students are re-enrolling at other schools and that student records are transferred as needed. More than one-third of ECOT's students — about 4,200 — enrolled in what is now Ohio's largest e-school, the Ohio Virtual Academy.
Former state lawmaker Stephen Dyer, a fellow with the liberal think tank Innovation Ohio and sharp ECOT critic, said he thinks ODE has done what it could within its authority to respond to the ECOT situation.
He questions whether the unaccounted-for students were really ever attending ECOT.
"They could be real kids, but we already know they have a history of billing the state for kids they don't have," Dyer said.