(TNS) — Republican Auditor Dave Yost opened Ohio's first statewide charter school summit today with a call to change the way the state pays online charter schools.

Arguing that there is too much ambiguity in current law, he proposed paying e-schools based on what their students learn rather than attendance or time spent online.

"Learning-based funding — course completion — would mean schools get paid when they deliver a piece of education," Yost said at the Charter School Summit in Columbus hosted by his office.

"The unit could be as large as a year's work or as little as an approved unit — believe me, I understand the pressures of cash flow, and smaller goals may well be better."

Yost's remarks come as the state's largest e-school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, is embroiled in a legal battle with the Ohio Department of Education over efforts to audit its attendance to ensure students are participating in the minimum 920 hours of "learning opportunities" required each year.

A Franklin County judge rejected ECOT's request for a temporary order to block the audit, and last week ordered the school to turn over attendance records, including student computer log-in durations. A  preliminary audit in March found that most ECOT students were logging in for only about an hour per day, education officials said.

ECOT has argued that state law and a 2003 agreement it signed with the department say the state should rely on teachers certifying the hours of "learning opportunities" provided students, not log-in records.

"Traditional schools have long been funded on attendance," Yost said.

"When the time came to start brick-and-mortar charter schools, we imported that attendance-based idea of 'time in a chair.' And then — mostly because that's the way we've done it — we used it to fund blended learning and virtual learning, even though it's remarkably hard to count noses when the classroom is everywhere, and nowhere, anytime."

Yost said state tax dollars should pay for what it's trying to buy, "a citizen who can read and write and do the math and, most of all, who can think, and that can't be produced just by time in chair."

The Republican auditor asked the GOP-controlled legislature to take up the issue when lawmakers return to the Statehouse this fall.

One charter-school supporter applauded the proposed e-school funding overhaul.

"Competency-based funding would place the emphasis on where it belongs — on student learning and mastery, rather than on whether a child is logged into a computer," said Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio Policy and Advoacy for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Yost has come under fire by Democrats for not taking a closer look at Ohio's online schools to justify state payments. The auditor left e-schools out of his recent charter-school attendance review, saying it was too difficult to to do a headcount. He found widespread over-billing in brick-and-mortar charters.

Last week,  Yost said that ECOT's 2003 agreement effectively tied state auditors' hands, allowing financial audits to check only that ECOT teachers had verified students' "learning opportunity hours," and not hours students actually spent learning.

Millions of tax dollars are at stake as schools are paid based on their number of students. ECOT, with an enrollment of about 17,000, received $106 million in state aid last year.

Following a similar attendance audit last year, Provost Academy, a smaller online school, was told to repay $800,000, about 80 percent of its funding. That audit, like the one the department is attempting to conduct for ECOT, examined log-in durations to help determine if students are meeting the minimum 920 hours of "learning opportunities" required by the state.

©2016 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.