ECOT Tries to Hold On to Over $60 Million in Tax Dollars It Collected for Phantom Students

The Ohio legislature is in the midst of its lame duck session—the opportunity for lawmakers to do something about the outrageous scam at the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT).  And today, according to Plunderbund, Senate Bill 3, an omnibus education law with 29 amendments is to be introduced in the House Education Committee.

A big question is whether the legislature will do anything at all about regulating the out-of-control online charter sector. Here are some of the issues, according to Plain Dealer education reporter, Patrick O’Donnell, who explained last week that, “ECOT, Ohio’s largest online school, has lost a court appeal that would have blocked the state from trying to ‘claw back’ as much as $65 million the school received last year…”  ECOT—which hasn’t been keeping accurate log-in attendance records, and which has claimed that the state requires it merely to provide 920 hours of instruction for the 15,000 students the school claims it educates but not to require its students to actively use the materials for at least 20 hours per week—took the state to court earlier this year to try to block the state’s crackdown on its massive reimbursement for phantom students. ECOT has lost in court at every turn as it has appealed its case, but the school’s leaders are shameless in demanding that the state continue paying the school for the students it claims, without proper records, are enrolled.  Its total tax-dollar reimbursement is currently over $100 million, but the state wants ECOT to return over $60 million.

O’Donnell reports that now in the legislature’s lame duck session, “The schools are asking state legislators to add a ‘hold harmless’ provision to another bill in the next few weeks to stop the state from using attendance reviews of the schools to take millions of dollars of state funding away from them.”  O’Donnell describes the pressure being brought on ECOT’s behalf by Neil Clark, Ohio’s most powerful Republican lobbyist, who represents ECOT and who alleges that “the Ohio Department of Education ‘created new rules for e-schools and then applied the new rules retroactively.'”

Last March, Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni of Youngstown introduced a bill to try to establish oversight of charter school enrollment.  In a press release he declared: “We need to make sure that online schools are accurately reporting attendance and not collecting tax dollars for students who never log in to take classes. Online schools must be held accountable for lax attendance policies. Without strong oversight, these schools could be collecting millions of dollars while failing to educate Ohio’s school children.” Schiavoni’s bill would have required e-schools to keep accurate records of the number of hours student spend doing coursework. It would have required the online school to notify the Ohio Department of Education if a student failed to log-in for ten consecutive days.  It would have required that a qualified teacher check in with each student once a month to monitor active participation.

There was always a very dim hope that wisdom and the relentless exposure by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Columbus Dispatch and the Akron Beacon-Journal might have pressured Ohio’s lame duck legislature to consider Schiavoni’s bill, but it was sidetracked last summer to the Senate Finance Committee by the Senate leadership in an attempt to get around a sympathetic Peggy Lehner, chair of the Senate Education Committee. In Ohio’s supermajority Republican legislature, Senator Schiavoi’s sensible bill will die at the end of the legislative session.

Now as December begins, with only a couple of weeks left in the lame duck session, ECOT and its fellow online schools are begging to avoid the threatened claw-back of their funding for this year, because they say they were not properly warned of the new regulations that kicked in last winter.  After all, the problem is more widespread than ECOT. O’Donnell reports: “The state also ordered Provost Academy in Columbus to repay $800,000 after finding that it had the equivalent of just 3 full-time students, not the 160 it had claimed. And it found that Akron Digital Academy could not document 80% of its students and that the Buckeye Online School for Success could not document any of its 900 students.”

Jim Siegel of the Columbus Dispatch reports that as the e-schools are trying to pressure legislators to save their funding, ECOT’s hearing before the Ohio Department of Education—the one the school has attempted repeatedly to block in court—began yesterday.  The department is meeting with representatives of the online schools as they continue trying to appeal the department’s ruling earlier this year.

Like O’Donnell, Siegel has wondered whether ECOT’s demand for a one-year hold harmless might be added as an amendment to another bill—perhaps to the already highly amended omnibus Senate Bill 3.  When he posed the question to Republican leaders in the House, “(B)oth (Andrew) Brenner, (chair of the House Education Committee) and Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, R-Clarksville, said they do not expect to add proposals that have not already been heard in committee as separate bills. Asked specifically about help for e-schools, Rosenberger said, ‘We’re not going to be seeing anything like that.'”

Siegel believes, however, that Andrew Brenner will still try to figure out how to waive this year’s claw-back of taxpayer funds from the e-schools. Andrew Brenner is a “nonvoting member of the state Board of Education,”  who has told Siegel: “I’m going to be talking to the board president and a couple of others to see what we can do to at least get us through this last school year, and then maybe we can have a permanent fix going forward… Brenner said his key concern is that even if the state Department of Education is legally authorized to ask online schools to provide more detailed login durations to justify enrollment figures, state officials should not have implemented the policy in the middle of the school year… It would have been more reasonable, Brenner said, for the department to warn schools this year, and then start docking their funds next year if enrollment could not be verified by login durations.”

Notice that Brenner’s focus is protecting the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. Remember that legislators have have been encouraged to consider ECOT’s well-being through political contributions from ECOT’s operator William Lager. As columnist Brent Larkin declares in the December 4, Plain Dealer: “Ohio is saddled with a damaging reputation as home to some of the nation’s worst charter schools. Worse yet, none of this seems to bother the state’s legislative leaders, whose breathtaking incompetence and corruption prevent them from angering their campaign contributors by making the tough decisions needed to improve the state’s educational standing.”

Brenner doesn’t seem to care that funding for Ohio’s massive unregulated online charter school scam is being sucked out of the state’s education budget and that Ohio’s way of funding charter schools even steals back money from local school districts’ levy funds.

This blog has covered the long-running scandal of Ohio’s failure to regulate ECOT here.

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