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2016 Year In Review: Accountability In Charter Schools

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2016 started with a shift in the tide when it comes to accountability and transparency for charter schools in Ohio. But the year ends with some big questions marks remaining about what standards online charter schools should meet. Here is a look back on the biggest news in education.

This year an enrollment audit found that the state’s largest online charter school dramatically over-reported how many full-time students were enrolled.

The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, or ECOT, told the state it had 15,000 students it should get state funding for. But the Ohio Department of Education reported that only 40 percent met the required amount of instruction time to qualify as full time.

ECOT consultant and longtime lobbyist Neil Clark was unhappy with the department for releasing the audit results as the school fought the initial investigation in court.

“They haven’t won anything," Clark said. "They’ve just irritated the process because they obviously must feel like they’re going to lose the court case so they want to do this action first.”

A judge ruled that ECOT lacked standing to fight the state on this issue, so the e-school is taking their case to appeals court. Six other eschools are also fighting the state on how attendance should be tracked.

As the enrollment audit battle raged on, the state was also trying to conduct charter school sponsor evaluations. These reviews were created by a new charter school accountability law.

The evaluations were delayed last year after the state's top charter school official admitted to scrubbing out failing grades for some schools. That scandal delayed a $70 million federal grant for high performing charters to expand.

Lawmakers tried to delay the evaluations, but the department finally rolled out the sponsor reviews in October. None were found to be exemplary and only five were deemed effective. The rest of Ohio’s charter school sponsors were poor or ineffective.

But the fact that Ohio moved forward with its sponsor evaluations motivated the U.S. Department of Education to go ahead with the $70 million grant.

Chad Aldis with the pro-charter school group the Fordham Institute says this money can play a big role. “Right now it’s hard for even our best charter schools to grow and you wanna make sure you have incentives lined up and part of that is allowing the best to serve more students,” Aldis said.

Charter school sponsors weren’t the only ones getting bad reviews from the state. Of the state’s 600 plus traditional public school districts, just two dozen got “A's" on their state school report cards.

And because of higher standards, schools that were used to getting A’s and B’s were getting D’s and F’s.

That didn’t sit well with many school administrators around the state, including Westerville City School board president Richard Bird. "Find a champion to meet me on the Statehouse lawn to champion these metrics as being accurate, true and value-added I will debate them on that lawn all day long," Bird said.

As the year comes to a close, there’s another major problem looming for Ohio as more than a third of high school juniors are not meeting the requirements they need to graduate.

Scott DiMauro with the Ohio Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, blames this on the new benchmarks that are needed to get a diploma.

“We’re confronting the reality that we’ve got a whole lot of students through no fault of their own who are at risk of not graduating next year because of a policy decision that wasn’t very well thought through,” DiMauro said.

The high school graduation issue might be the most pressing topic going into 2017. The state school board has created a study committee to look into the problem. That means the board is not likely to make any possible changes for a few more months.

Andy Chow is a general assignment state government reporter who focuses on environmental, energy, agriculture, and education-related issues. He started his journalism career as an associate producer with ABC 6/FOX 28 in Columbus before becoming a producer with WBNS 10TV.