Lawyers for the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, Ohio’s largest charter school and one of the nation’s largest e-schools, has employed a new tactic to protect the school’s collection of tax dollars for phantom students. Jim Siegel and Catherine Candisky of The Columbus Dispatch report that ECOT has filed a lawsuit to block an attendance audit to be conducted this week by the Ohio Department of Education:
“Facing the potential loss of tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer funding, Ohio’s largest online charter school sued the state Friday in an attempt to block an upcoming attendance audit. The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow filed the lawsuit in an attempt to stop the Ohio Department of Education from requiring that the school provide records of daily student log-in times, which the lawsuit calls ‘a bait and switch.’ The state’s preliminary attendance review of ECOT in May raised questions, noting that ‘most log-in times from these files did not substantiate 5 hours per day of log-in time for the students reviewed. The accuracy of attendance figures is crucial because they are the key factor in determining how much state money a school receives. ECOT gets about $107 million per year for more than 15,000 students.” The Ohio Department of Education had scheduled a final ECOT attendance review this week.
Neil Clark, ECOT’s “consultant” and one of Columbus’ best known and most powerful Republican lobbyists, explained on Friday that ECOT signed a funding agreement with the Ohio Department of Education back in 2003. Clark says the 2003 contract requires only that that ECOT offer each of its students 920 hours of “learning opportunities” in every school year but does not require students actually to participate for five hours every day—all 920 hours.
The Plain Dealer reprinted and expanded the Dispatch story on page A14 in its Saturday, print edition, but a hotlink is unavailable because cleveland.com, the newspaper’s website, did not pick up the story. The Plain Dealer‘s story provides additional information from the lawsuit itself, in which ECOT alleges: “The General Assembly elected to make this FTE (full time equivalency) calculation dependent upon the number of hours of learning opportunities offered, as opposed to actual time spent logged in by a particular student… Simply put, had the legislature intended to make FTE funding dependent on student log-in time/duration or some other measure of ‘participation,’ it knew exactly how to do so. Instead it specifically chose to make the (attendance) funding calculation based on learning opportunities ‘offered’ by Ohio’s community schools.” (In Ohio law, charters are termed “community schools,” unlike the rest of the country where “Community Schools” are defined as traditional public schools with added wraparound health and social services located right in the school building.)
Describing the lawsuit’s contention that a 2003 contract agreement with the Ohio Department of Education merely requires ECOT to provide 920 hours of curriculum but does not require that students actually participate, the Plain Dealer report adds: “The agreement was signed by an associate superintendent at the Education Department but his or her signature is illegible.”
Ohio Senate Minority leader Joe Schiavoni proposed a bill earlier this spring that would have very specifically prevented Ohio’s online charters from charging the state for phantom students. Senator Schiavoni’s proposed law was written to require e-schools to keep accurate records of the number of hours students spend doing coursework, require the online school to notify the Ohio Department of Education if a student fails to log-in for ten consecutive days, and require that a qualified teacher check in with each student once a month to monitor active participation. When it became clear that Senator Peggy Lehner, chair of the Education Committee, was sympathetic to cracking down on state reimbursements for phantom students, Senator Schiavoni’s bill was sidetracked by Senate leadership to hearings in the Finance Committee. The legislature went on summer recess without acting on Senator Schiavoni’s proposed bill, and it is expected that Senate leadership will let the bill die. (This blog has covered Ohio’s unregulated online charters here, here, and here.)
Senator Schiavoni commented this week on ECOT’s new lawsuit: “This lawsuit is ECOT’s Hail Mary. It is a desperate attempt to cover up the fraud they are perpetrating on the students and taxpayers of our state… ECOT is actually asserting in their lawsuit that they are not required to teach any student anything. But they still demand the hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars taken each year from our pubic schools. They have now added high-priced lawyers to their army of high-priced lobbyists.”
Senate Education Committee Chair Peggy Lehner told the Columbus Dispatch that she is not familiar with the 2003 contract that the lawsuit claims ECOT signed with the Ohio Department of Education: “To pay ECOT for merely offering something and not delivering it is not a good bargain for taxpayers.”
Bill Lager, founder of ECOT and private owner of the two companies that manage its operations and provide its curriculum, has made millions in profits from Ohio tax dollars paid to ECOT on a per-student basis. Lager is also known to have shared his largess in generous political contributions to protect his online charter empire. Catherine Candisky and and Jim Siegel reported in February that: “William Lager, ECOT founder and operator, was the second-largest individual donor to legislative Republicans in the last election cycle, giving $393,500, plus another $202,000 in 2015.”