E-School Screening and School Choice
How schools are using screening and admissions to improve scores.
By Connor Brown
Last week, 3rd Rail Politics reported that ODE was picking winners and losers in the battle over e-schools: those audited in 2016-17 seem to be getting a pass, while e-schools chosen for a retroactive audit (2015-16) school year are being forced to pay back huge amounts to the state, perhaps forcing many to close. In their latest commercial designed to highlight their plight, ECOT claims that if they were forced to close, hundreds of teachers and support staff would be left jobless and nearly 15,000 students would be left without a school.
Some dismiss the claim, unconcerned about the staff and assume that the students would be able to enroll in another e-school if they still needed e-schooling as an option. But one of the reasons ECOT could grow so large was that the school accepted every applicant: it didn’t screen students nor deny admittance, no matter how far behind students might be when they enrolled. But that’s not the case for Ohio’s other large e-schools.
In a review of Connections Academy, one of Ohio’s largest e-schools, it was revealed that admissions barriers have been set up to prevent undesirable students from enrolling. At Connections, students are reportedly screened to determine if they would be a drag on their overall scores of the academy. Students who do not meet their guidelines are “encouraged” to enroll elsewhere.
A former administrator at Connections Academy revealed to 3rd Rail Politics that when a student is found to be behind in credits (which means they would drag down the graduation rate from the moment they enrolled) they refer such students to ECOT. Connections Academy actually states on their website that they do not enroll students who cannot meet the age cap for their academic progress, ensuring that their graduation rate stays on track. They go further to deter undesirable students by not uniformly providing internet access, something suburban kids take for granted, but is a luxury good for many poor students. Nor does Connections Academy accept students who have been expelled, ensuring those troubled youth are never on their books, further making Connections look better vs. their competitors.
The result of these screenings is pretty clear: Connections Academy students are whiter, richer, have fewer students with issues, are less mobile, and are more academically on track when they enroll. It’s no surprise that their scores and graduations rates are higher than the e-schools who have true open enrollment.
Ironically, school choice came about in Ohio to provide better educational options for poor, urban families stuck in deplorable schools. While Connections Academy is no doubt serving quality education to quality students, their admission process screens out the very students the legislature had in mind when they created school choice. (In fact, some would argue that their admission process is a clear violation of legislative intent.)
But screening processes seem to be becoming more and more common as ODE “cracks down” on poor-performing charters. Charter schools are realizing the best way to be considered successful is to not admit the students who need the most help. K-12, for example, runs two e-schools in Ohio: one for “on-track” students (Ohio Virtual Academy) and one for more difficult students (Insight Academy). Admissions officers at K-12 are tasked with making sure the “right” kids get placed in the “right” schools.
And there is support in the Legislature for charter school screening. In an October phone conversation with Third Rail Politics, Senator Peggy Lehner, the current Chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said that any student wishing to enroll in an e-school should be forced to “take a test” before they are granted permission to leave their assigned public school and enroll in an e-school. Is it any wonder which kids would pass this test and which would not?
So what will happen to the students who currently call ECOT and the ‘unlucky’ e-schools home? If the other e-schools and Senator Lehner are any indication, those students will find themselves back in the very schools that have already failed to meet their needs.
This issue is symptomatic of ODE’s and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation’s idea of only allowing “high quality charter schools”. Schools that focus on serving students who need help the most, often times escaping the worst district schools in the state, fall victims to Ohio’s report card where results are highly correlated with poverty. Such schools unsurprisingly produce poor report card results which places pressure on sponsors to close them or risk being closed themselves. This system will result only in the illusion of school choice for Ohio; a system of locking students into unsafe, expensive and academically poor district schools which would themselves be closed if they were community schools.
This is how ‘school choice’ in Ohio ceases to become actual school choice.