In the first day of our check-in on Ohio’s e-schools, we saw how increases in enrollment were driven by only four statewide schools. Yesterday, we saw that about a third of all students at Ohio’s e-schools had been enrolled for under a year – a figure that calls attention to the challenge of measuring e-school accountability. But the majority of Ohio’s rated e-schools were mediocre or poor academic performers, falling into the bottom two ratings categories.
OHDELA, a statewide e-school run by the for-profit White Hat Management, is no exception there: since the moratorium on new schools went into effect, OHDELA has bounced between “continuous improvement” and “academic watch,” two of the bottom three ratings given by the state of Ohio. What does make OHDELA a little different is that it has a much higher proportion of long-term students; about 22 percent, or 400 of OHDELA’s 1824 students, attended for more than three years. Despite this, OHDELA’s enrollment has been on the decline. Last May, we posed this question:
“…OHDELA, the only statewide school that is losing enrollment, is also falling in performance. In OHDELA’s case, is the school losing students because it is performing poorly or is it performing poorly because higher-performing students are leaving (or perhaps a death cycle of both)?”
More recent data don’t give us much with which to answer this question. In 2011, OHDELA gained 25 students and improved Ohio performance index score by half a point. That isn’t much to write home about. Despite the overall downward trend of enrollment and performance over the past few years, the distribution of student mobility has stayed fairly consistent:
It’s not obvious, then, that any specific group of students at OHDELA is running for the exits. We still can’t address whether the school is performing poorly due to attrition of high-performers or whether students are withdrawing due to the school’s poor performance. But if a current or prospective OHDELA family wanted to see how the school was doing, it would have an awfully hard time.
While data on all the other e-schools are available by name on the ODE report card website, searching for OHDELA turns up nothing. That’s because OHDELA reports as “Alternative Education Academy” (here’s OHDELA’s report card, by the way.) A spreadsheet tucked into the depths of the ODE’s website tells us that OHDELA sometimes goes by this alternative identity, which also happens to be the name of its board. The website for OHDELA’s sponsor, the Ohio Council of Community Schools, does refer to OHDELA with both names, but it would be hard for a family to find that, too – OHDELA doesn’t list the Ohio Council of Community Schools anywhere on its website.
School choice is predicated on the ability of parents to access information about schools to make informed decisions about where to send their children. This lack of transparency creates an information asymmetry for parents. If a school’s data is hidden in plain view (as OHDELA’s is) we can’t expect to have an education marketplace that is well functioning or beneficial for families.*
Relying on broad assumptions about size, type of provider, or geography aren’t necessarily the best approach to regulating e-schools, but a completely hands-off plan isn’t either. For now, Ohio’s moratorium on e-schools remains while accountability systems for e-schools have yet to be seriously considered. Formidable lobbying efforts on behalf of some of the largest operators only increase the saliency of appropriate oversight.
All in all, revisiting Ohio’s e-schools points toward some of the same issues we touched on in May:
- What drove the divergence in statewide and local e-schools, and what does this say about the appeal of e-schools or the scale future operators might want their schools to take? Will more regional operators like Quaker Digital Academy want to make the jump to being a statewide provider? Trends such as this hold significant consequences for how e-schools are regulated and given oversight, and what factors go into determining whether a school can enroll from a statewide pool of applicants.
- Will e-school students tend to use e-schools as a la carte providers of educational services or will the proportion of long-term e-school students increase? The various missions and fluid populations of e-schools means that oversight has to be tailored. In light of this tailoring, there needs to be recourse to shut down persistently low performing schools.
- Our case study of OHDELA illustrates the continuing need to make sure that e-schools, their operators, and their sponsors maintain transparent operations. This transparency extends from financial disclosures to academic data. For an education marketplace to work efficiently, parents need access to information to make good decisions. Hiding the data in plain sight doesn’t cut it. As virtual schooling continues to draw interest, we renew our call for strong but limber oversight – to ensure that public funds go towards the best outcomes for children.
* It isn’t the first time that someone has questioned a White Hat-run school’s transparency – a judge recently found that the management company was less-than-forthcoming about how it spent its public funds. And by all accounts, White Hat’s lobbying, though mostly unsuccessful, almost succeeded in ridding the state of most of its charter school accountability in this year’s budget bill.
Written by Education Sector policy intern Scott Baumgartner.