Imagine everybody’s surprise when, at 7:53 PM last Wednesday night, reporters from the Columbus Dispatch announced that Ohio’s notorious Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) will likely be put out of business on Thursday, January 18th. ECOT’s final legal appeal of the state’s attempt to claw back $60 million in tax dollars overpaid to ECOT for the 2015-16 school year and another $20 million for the 2016-17 school year is still scheduled on February 13 for oral arguments before the Ohio Supreme Court.
Here is what we learned last Wednesday night from Dispatch reporters Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel: “The Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, ECOT’s long-time sponsor, informed school officials this week that it has initiated proceedings to suspend ECOT operations ‘at or near the end of the current semester’ and terminate its sponsorship contract… ECOT’s semester ends next Thursday, Jan. 18.” “ECOT, a statewide online school opened in 2000, has become a lightning rod for controversy over the past two years, with a spotlight on its poor academic performance, nearly $200 million in payments to companies run by school founder Bill Lager, plus a highly publicized fight with the state over its inability to verify its enrollment largely through log-in data.”
Candisky and Siegel also report that last Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West also announced that due to the school’s financial problems, as of February, ECOT is unable to secure a bond for its fiscal officer. A bonded fiscal officer is a requirement in Ohio for the operation of a charter school.
ECOT has been charging the state a per-pupil fee for educating what it said in 2015-2016 were 15,000 students—a count ECOT reduced to 12,000 students for 2016-2017. But the school has never been able to document that thousands of students have been regularly logging onto their computers. In its own defense, ECOT has claimed the state requires it only to provide 920 hours of curriculum per year but not to prove that its students are actually using the curriculum.
Ohio’s legislature toughened the law in 2015, but ECOT has claimed it is protected by an earlier 2003 policy. While the Ohio Department of Education alleges the school has been inflating its attendance numbers for years to collect millions of tax dollars, passage of the 2015 law finally allowed the state to crack down. That is why the state’s attempted clawback of dollars overpaid to ECOT—$60 million for 2015-16 and $20 million for 2016-17—dates back only for the past two school years.
Then there are the enormous private profits being sucked out of the ECOT enterprise. Bill Lager, ECOT’s founder, privately owns the two companies that create ECOT’s online curriculum (IQ Innovations) and operate the school (Altair Management). Lager contributes lavishly to political campaigns of the Republicans who make up a super-majority in the Ohio legislature tasked with regulating charter schools and to the political campaigns of the elected members of the Ohio Supreme Court, scheduled to hear the ECOT appeal in mid-February.
The state of Ohio has been reducing its contributions to ECOT by $2.5 million each month and escrowing the money while awaiting the school’s appeal through the court process. Ohio’s auditor Dave Yost has worried that if ECOT eventually declares bankruptcy, the public should protect its right to collect at least some of the money ECOT has stolen.
Many Ohioans are, like me, probably wondering whether it can possibly be true that ECOT might be shut down. It has seemed the ECOT scam will never be resolved due to the power of Bill Lager’s money in Columbus.
The first question is about sponsor hopping. In the past, when sponsors have shut down shoddy charter schools, the charter school’s board has simply found another state-approved sponsor who will take a chance on the school. But apparently that will be difficult for ECOT. The Thomas Fordham Institute explains that Ohio House Bill 2, passed in 2015 to regulate charter schools, prohibits sponsor hopping for schools being shut down unless “the school finds a new sponsor rated effective or better, hasn’t switched sponsors in the past, and gains approval from the Ohio Department of Education.” In a follow-up report, Candisky and Siegel add: “A modification to the contract between Lake Erie West and ECOT signed in April 2017 says if the school is not renewed due to lack of fiscal management, the school must close permanently and ‘the school shall not enter into a contract with any other sponsor.'”
The Ohio Department of Education resolved a second potential question about the school’s future as well last Thursday. Not only are ECOT’s finances in trouble, but also its academic rating has been dismal. To improve its academic standing—not by improving the way ECOT serves its students but instead by lowering the public’s expectations for the school—ECOT had applied to become what Ohio classes as a “dropout recovery school.” The state demands less academically of such schools that serve primarily older students who may be on the verge of dropping out of school or have already done so. But, Candisky and Siegel report: “Adding to ECOT’s troubles, the Department of Education informed the school Thursday that it does not qualify as a dropout recovery school. ECOT was seeking the designation, which would have significantly lowered its academic requirements on the school’s annual report card. The department said 49.4 percent of ECOT students are between the ages of 16 and 21. State law requires a dropout school to be above 50 percent.”
The third and biggest question is political. Will the legislature find a way to save ECOT? Candisky and Siegel consider this question in the context of what ECOT has cost Ohio taxpayers: “The school has received about $1 billion in tax dollars since it opened in 2000.” Then they quote Senator Peggy Lehner, chair of the Senate Education Committee, who has consistently demonstrated concern for Ohio’s public schools, though she has sometimes been silenced by her party’s leaders: “What they’ve been accused of is pretty egregious, frankly. When you see someone ripping off the state by that amount of money, there’s not much of an appetite for taking it easy on them.”
If ECOT is saved by some kind of last minute agreement, it will more likely be orchestrated by the Ohio House, where, “Rep. Andrew Brenner, R-Powell, chairman of the House Education Committee whose largest contributor is ECOT founder Bill Lager, said, ideally, the state would find a way to let ECOT students finish the school year by reducing the monthly payment.”
Candisky and Siegel also quote ECOT’s Superintendent about how the school might avoid immediate collapse: “Asked to provide options to avoid mid-year closure, ECOT Superintendent Brittny Pierson cited potential staff cuts and possible rate reductions with vendors including IQ Innovations and Altair Management, the companies run by ECOT founder Lager that have received nearly $200 million since the school opened.”
Of course there is also concern about ECOT’s students. Local school districts across the state have been forthcoming—promising to welcome any students who want to return to their schools. Nobody knows, however, exactly what kind of upheaval would occur. ECOT says this year it is serving about 12,000 students. Candisky and Siegel paint perhaps a more realistic picture: “More than 20,000 students generally cycle through ECOT in a given school year, though state data show a number enroll for short periods or infrequently log into the school’s academic system.”
For a long time there have been serious questions about whether ECOT is really a school or whether it is primarily a giant scam to suck profits out of Ohio’s state and local tax dollars.