Lawmakers forward e-school attendance allegations

Charter School

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – State lawmakers said Monday they have referred allegations to authorities that an online charter school failed to dis-enroll hundreds of chronically truant students in order to pad its rolls.

Ohio Virtual Academy, which serves about 13,000 students statewide, said it follows all state reporting laws and enrollment guidelines.

Reps. Bill Hayes and Teresa Fedor, the House Education Committee’s top Republican and Democrat, told The Associated Press they have forwarded an anonymous whistleblower’s email to state Auditor Dave Yost, whose office has made school attendance fraud a priority.

A school’s enrollment dictates the size of its monthly payments from the state.

“My question is how long has it been going on. For years? I don’t know,” Fedor said. “This is a serious gap and it’s a serious issue if these e-schools are getting money that they shouldn’t get.”

Hayes also involved the Ohio Department of Education and alerted the school, whose authorizer said it is conducting its own review.

The whistleblower provided a list of more than 400 specific students listed as truant, some for most of the school year. The email comes amid highly charged debate at the Ohio Statehouse over charter school regulations viewed as among the weakest in the country. Recent legislation has tightened up the law and a pending bill with bipartisan sponsorship has a hearing this week.

Education Department spokesman John Charlton said a student at a charter school doesn’t have to be withdrawn until they have had 105 consecutive hours of unexcused absences. That allows for the flexibility of taking time off, working on weekends, or logging lots of hours in a crunch. It also means that a student at an online school could log on for 10 minutes once a month and remain legally enrolled.

Principal Kristin Stewart said the list sent to lawmakers represents students with which the school is working on truancy issues, but she said the suggestion the Virtual Academy has mishandled student attendance in any way is simply wrong.

“I can tell you it’s not true,” she said. “Kids come to us for a lot of reasons, and we work with them to keep them on track. Sometimes they might get truant then we might catch them up and then they get truant again. That list represents the students we are working with on the issue. We’re dealing with students who are chronically ill, or are hospitalized, are incarcerated, they have unplanned pregnancies. We want to work with them.”

Stewart said she suspects opponents of charter schools are behind the email.

However, Fedor said she was angered and alarmed by revelations contained in the email, which she described as “detailed and credible.”

Hayes has asked the state to investigate the whistleblower as well as the allegations, since disseminating private student data is a violation of federal law.

Lenny Schafer, executive director of the Ohio Council of Community Schools, the Virtual Academy’s sponsor, said it has an exemplary track record and audits the school’s records several times a year and has never found any problems. He said the group reports to the governing authority at every meeting.

“We take these allegations very seriously and are actively conducting an investigation,” he told Hayes in an email.

Yost’s spokeswoman said the office doesn’t confirm or deny referrals or discuss ongoing investigations.

(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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