Eschoolers Advocate At Statehouse

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Nearly 40-thousand Ohio kids attend more than two dozen schools that don’t have daily sessions in actual classrooms, or sports teams or mascots, but get millions in state dollars.

The families of these schools went to Columbus to tell their stories and combat perceptions about those online schools.

It was a real-life civics lesson for about a hundred families of Ohio kids who attend electronic schools, or eschools.

They came to the Statehouse to meet with lawmakers who decide on policies related to eschools, which are public schools but are tuition-free and have no scheduled hours, no study halls or lunch periods, and no sports or extracurricular programs.

But estudents stress they’re real schools in the educational sense.

Tamara Smathers attends Ohio Virtual Academy from her home in Belmont County.

She wanted to find a school that would allow her a schedule flexible enough to allow her time to do theatre.

“Even though that you don’t have those other people in the room with you, it’s a lot easier because then you don’t have the bullies that are common in public schools.”

Mindy Brems of Coshocton has two kids in Ohio Connections Academy – a daughter who’s a junior and a son who’s a sophomore.

She says she turned to eschools after investigating other options beyond traditional public school.

“You hear about poor performing schools, and you hear about things. I think those are the outliers. I think, across the board, public schools in Ohio are doing a good job. And I think it’s good for students and parents to have a choice. So for me to be able to choose an e-school in a small, rural district is wonderful because we don’t have access to things like kids in Columbus have.”

The state spends $900 million on nearly 400 charter schools – 26 of those are electronic schools.

And like other charter or community schools, eschools have not done well in state rankings.

A report three years ago by the liberal think tank Innovation Ohio noted that only 8 percent of students were in eschools that received what amounted to a B grade or better from the Ohio Department of Education. But eschool advocates are quick to say that many students end up in these schools because they didn’t do well in traditional public schools, for a variety of reasons.

An example is the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, or ECOT. Republican Rep. Andy Brenner is from Powell in Delaware County, and he notes ECOT will graduate 2,500 students this year.

“Well, there’s 2500 students of which I believe 85% of them are disadvantaged students or are kids who, this is their second chance. That means, of that 2500 students, a large percentage would have been dropped out and held against the public schools and their rankings would have looked worse had these e-schools not have been there.  And that’s an opportunity cost and a discussion that we haven’t had happen.”

But eschool critics say more transparency within eschools – and indeed all charter schools – would allow an apples-to-apples comparison with traditional public schools.

Sen. Joe Schiavoni is a Democrat of Youngstown, and has sponsored a bill that would require all charters, including eschools, to be more transparent and undergo an annual audit.

“People shouldn’t be making money off kids. And that’s the problem. If you look at the founder of ECOT, he’s given $455,000 worth of campaign contributions to legislators since 2009. And if the results don’t match, if the results aren’t promising, if they’re not improving – that’s an issue to me.”

Beyond Schiavoni’s bill – which doesn’t seem likely to move quickly, if at all – there are a few other eschool related bills in the legislature.

One would lift the caps on eschool enrollment, and another would allow homeschooled kids and kids in private and charter schools, as well as those who are in eschools, to participate in extracurricular activities and sports in the traditional public school system.

The moratorium on new eschools was lifted this year – five were permitted by law, but only three were allowed to open and operate.