COLUMBUS (AP) — Ohio Supreme Court justices began weighing arguments in a hot-button case over how Ohio calculated funding for one of the nation’s largest online charter schools after grilling both sides’ attorneys for nearly an hour on Tuesday.
The case’s outcome will determine the survival of the now-closed Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, and it also could have a broader impact on the oversight and funding of other virtual schools whose accountability has been drawn into the fray.
Marion Little, an attorney for ECOT, argued that the Ohio Department of Education overstepped its authority when it decided to use student learning time, rather than enrollment, for its calculation.
The revised criteria showed ECOT inflated its attendance for the 2015-2016 school year and owed the state a $60 million refund. An additional $19 million has been ordered repaid for last year.
Little told justices the state should have used enrollment exclusively to calculate how much ECOT was paid, as is the case with brick-and-mortar schools.
“In a traditional school, there is no measurement of (learning time) duration whatsoever. Funding is premised solely on enrollment,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether the student goes to school. It doesn’t matter whether the student is sick, delinquent, engaged whatsoever. There is no consequence to a brick-and-mortar school.”
Justices appeared skeptical, repeatedly questioning ECOT’s insistence that it was wronged.
State attorney Douglas Cole said the school’s interpretation of state law is that it can collect full payment for students without documenting a single minute’s learning.
“The department says that’s an absurd result and this court should be very leery about reading that intent into what the General Assembly wrote,” Cole said.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor directed Cole’s argument to Little, after confirming the school’s belief that state law requires no student learning at ECOT to be documented.
“How is that not absurd?” O’Connor asked.
Little said the state’s case was unfairly, and inaccurately, conflating state funding and student performance.
“There are other ways of testing whether a community school is discharging its responsibility,” he said. “We make a distinction between how is funding done and how are schools evaluated.”
Cole said the state’s requests for ECOT to provide specifics on students’ activities — which the school has argued were made retroactively — have parallels in other areas of government.
“I don’t think a sort of head-in-the-sand defense gets you too far with respect to claims of unfairness about retroactivity,” he said.
He likened the Education Department’s approach to ECOT to that of the Internal Revenue Service, which may accept a person’s expenses at face value for years and, after a period of years, come back and ask for receipts.
“All of the sudden, after not asking to see the receipts for three years, they say, ‘Well, you’ve listed these expenses, we’d love to see the receipts.’ You say, ‘Receipts? Nobody said anything about receipts!’” he said. “We’ve all known you had to have receipts, you had to have documentation.”
About three dozen ECOT supporters demonstrated outside the courthouse as the arguments were heard.
“I’m hoping and praying that the Supreme Court will judge by the law and not by politics or public opinion,” said Lawana Partlow, a longtime ECOT teacher laid off after the school was shut down last month as it was running out of money.
A few of the roughly 12,000 ECOT students who were abruptly left without a school attended the rally, too, including Heather Stephen’s three children.
Stephen, of Streetsboro, said the transition to another e-school has been emotionally traumatizing for her children and she suspects other ECOT students encountered similar difficulties.
“You kind of wonder where they’re at and if they’re doing OK,” Stephen said.
The Department of Education has said thousands of ECOT students have enrolled elsewhere.
Associated Press reporter Kantele Franko contributed to this report.