Today, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled, in Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow v. Ohio Dept. of Edn., that the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) is authorized to base the funding of internet- or computer-based community schools, such as the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), on the duration of student participation and may require e-schools to provide data documenting the duration of a student’s participation.
Under state law, ODE is required to fund an internet or computer-based school based on the “full-time equivalency” of each student enrolled. The formula for determining how much to pay per student is set forth in RC 3314.08(H)(3), which states:
The department shall determine each community school student's percentage of full-time equivalency based on the percentage of learning opportunities offered by the community school to that student, reported either as number of hours or number of days, is of the total learning opportunities offered by the community school to a student who attends for the school's entire school year. However, no internet- or computer-based community school shall be credited for any time a student spends participating in learning opportunities beyond ten hours within any period of twenty-four consecutive hours. Whether it reports hours or days of learning opportunities, each community school shall offer not less than nine hundred twenty hours of learning opportunities during the school year.”
In this case, both ECOT and ODE disagreed about the meaning of the language that no e-school “shall be credited for any time a student spends participating in learning opportunities beyond ten hours within any period of twenty-four consecutive hours.”
ECOT argued the provision was only meant to ensure that the school spreads out learning over the school year and operate on a comparable school year calendar to their brick-and-mortar counterparts. It argued that the provision does not condition funding on the student’s participation, but rather prevents an e-school from claiming credit for a student who had access to the materials 24 hours a day and finished the school year in a few months by working around the clock.
The Ohio Supreme Court rejected this interpretation, finding that, by adding the 10-hour limit, the legislature intended to cap the credit ECOT could claim for enrolling a student to 10 hours a day. The court found that the only way the e-school or department could calculate that credit would be by referring to records with evidence of a student’s participation.
The court explained that enrollment — as measured by learning opportunities offered — provides ECOT the “potential” for funding, but the actual “amount” of funding paid must be calculated by student participation. If the formula were based only on hours offered, there would be no need for the language that precludes funding for student participation beyond 10 hours a day.
“The term ‘offer’ is only one word of the operable language of the statute, which when read in full, does not indicate that the legislature intended for e-schools to be funded merely for offering learning opportunities,” the court’s opinion stated.
The court’s decision was not unanimous, as both Justice O’Donnell and Justice Kennedy issued separate dissenting opinions. Justice O’Donnell held that RC 3314.08 did not authorize the use of durational data as a basis for funding ECOT. “If the legislature had intended to condition funding on the duration of a student’s participation in the learning opportunities offered by a community school, it could have expressed that intent by using a phrase such as ‘based on the percentage of learning opportunities participated in by that student,’ but it did not do so,” O’Donnell’s opinion stated.
In her dissent, Justice Kennedy asserted that the majority interpreted RC 3314.08(H)(3) “more broadly than the General Assembly intended, taking a limited provision for calculating FTE that simply caps the number of hours of learning opportunities available to a student on a given day and inferring from it a new restriction on e-school funding that is not based on enrollment as provided by R.C. 3314.08(C)(2).” In her view, the 10-hour rule was aimed at students who attend an e-school for less than a full year and prevents an e-school from receiving more to educate the student than the state should pay.
“Unmooring RC 3314.08(H)(3) from its context is ... not just a faulty exercise of statutory construction; it has real-world consequences that arrive at the expense of the very students that the legislature sought to empower by providing an alternative to the traditional public schools that already failed them,” she wrote. And “[b]ecause of the challenges that many students attending e-schools already face, such as high rates of mobility, poverty, and special needs, the majority effectively eviscerates the last chance for an education that many students attending an e-school will have.”