William Lager, Charter Czar, Makes the Drop to Ensure Lack of Regulation of Ohio Charters

It is no longer acceptable to deprecate women as Mike Royko does in his 1978 column “Bucking Hard for the Equal Rights Amendment,” but just for today I am going let Mike Royko’s references to “do gooder ladies” go.  Royko was the very savvy and funny longtime Chicago newspaper columnist. We will focus on his intended topic: the role of money in politics:

“I was talking to an ERA lady recently.  She was fretting that the (Equal Rights) amendment might again fail in Illinois, after all of her hard work… I said, ‘Make the drop.’  She looked puzzled and asked: ‘Make the what?’  ‘The drop. Give them some money.’ She still didn’t understand. ‘Money? For what?’  ‘Bribes.’…  That’s the trouble with the ERA crowd and most do-gooders.  They are earnest, diligent, and energetic.  But they don’t have much sense.  Throughout the history of this state, sly people have been getting what they want out of Springfield.  They haven’t done it by being honest, earnest, diligent, and energetic… They have done it by throwing a shoebox full of money through the transom of a Springfield hotel room.”  (The essay appears on pages 109-111 of One More Time: The Best of Mike Royko.)

What we used to think was the way things were done in Chicago has come to dominate politics everywhere in America.  The result is that the powerful are regularly buying the policies that affect the rest of us, and nowhere is that clearer than in the policies that shape our public schools, the quintessential institution of the 99 Percent.

As with Royko’s column, the subject today is state government, not in Illinois but in my state, Ohio, whose legislature, after a year of crafting some relatively weak oversight of charter schools, went home at the end of June without passing even a weak bill.  Late last month, Patrick O’Donnell of the Plain Dealer reported, “The Ohio House will head off on summer break without voting on the new accountability and financial reporting rules for Ohio’s $1 billion charter school industry that have been in the works for months.  House leaders skipped a vote on the package late last week and have left it off the schedule for Tuesday, the last session before leaving for recess.” “Republican leaders say the delay is to clear up some issues with the just-revised bill.  Others call it an attempt to buy time to water down the bill to please charter school operators who donate to Republican candidates.”  Rep. Teresa Fedor, a Democrat, interpreted the move: “They never will call a vote, which means the tax dollars will continue on the ripoff train.”

As the legislature adjourned for its summer break without doing anything about charters, Doug Livingston clarified the meaning of all this in the Akron Beacon-Journal: “Though there are only 24 online schools among the more than 380 charter schools in Ohio, they receive nearly one in three state dollars set aside (each year) for charter schools or $267 million… The two largest—the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) and Ohio Virtual Academy—received $185 million in state funding.  Two are run by influential for-profit companies.  White Hat Management, which operates Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning academy founded by Akron industrialist David Brennan, and Altair Learning, which operates ECOT and is owned by Bill Lager.  Brennan and Lager have given more than $1.4 million in political contributions to state lawmakers since 2009….”  It is worth noting as well that recently term-limited Ohio House Speaker William Batchelder, when he left the legislature in January of this year, revolved directly into a lobbying job and took on a very powerful and influential client: William Lager.

On Saturday, in his 10th Period blog, Stephen Dyer published the next chapter in the story of Ohio’s failure to regulate charters.  Dyer shows how William Lager of ECOT and Altair Management knows Mike Royko’s rule about ‘making the drop’: “Just a few days after the Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives declined to take up House Bill 2… the campaign committee meant to re-elect his members got a familiar maximum level check (as permitted by law) from William Lager, who runs the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT).  Not to be undone, so did the Ohio Senate’s campaign committee.  Both were for $18,798.51.”

Dyer continues:  “Last year, the state of Ohio paid ECOT $104 million to educate the 15,088 students it received from Ohio’s local public schools.  That $6,921 per pupil is nearly $2,500 more than the average Ohio school district received last year from the state before charters, vouchers and open enrollment were deducted.  ECOT’s per pupil state funding is larger than all but 52 of Ohio’s 613 school districts.  And this is for an electronic school without buildings, custodians, buses, heating, cooling, sports teams, etc… The question now is this: Will the contributions keep House Bill 2 from moving this fall?”

Mike Royko clearly understood the rules in Springfield back in the 1970s.  William Lager clearly understands the same quid pro quo politics today around charter schools.  It used to be called “buying votes.”  Today this is just the way things are in Ohio and, I suspect, most other places.

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