National School Choice Week: A Time to Examine How the Lessons of ECOT’s Demise Apply Beyond Ohio

During this National School Choice Week, a celebration of school privatization that is being financially and ideologically promoted by people like Jeb Bush and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, it is a good time to consider the lessons we have been learning about the impact of parental choice and what is virtually always at the center of school choice: privatization of education at public expense.

One obvious and little noticed problem for those who seek to bring the problems of school choice to the public’s attention is that the laws which established charter schools and govern their operation are state-specific.  When an unscrupulous charter school, or even a big chain of charters goes down in another state, it is easy to think, “This isn’t relevant to me,” and maybe skip reading the story.  Even if the Network for Public Education (NPE) releases a high quality, incisive a report on a selection of charter schools across the country, it is tempting to look for a chapter about a school in one’s own state and skip the report’s first four chapters about California. One can turn away, thinking, “I can’t do anything about this other state’s mess anyway.”

But if you read NPE’s big report, you’ll notice that charter school problems across the states have some things in common. Coincidentally and ironically, this National School Choice Week is happening only days after the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, one of the nation’s largest cyber charter schools, was finally put out of business  by Ohio state officials and its sponsoring organization.  ECOT’s demise last Thursday is a good opportunity to reflect on the broader lessons can be learned about school privatization.  ECOT’s seventeen year longevity, despite a history of controversy, is a lesson about outrageous lack of regulation of a privately operated education sector that relies on public tax dollars—public tax dollars that, even when the school is not-for-profit, too frequently flow to for-profit management contractors who use the money to pay state legislators and regulators to look the other way.

In Sunday’s Columbus Dispatch, Bill Bush quotes Bill Phillis, long ago an assistant superintendent of public instruction in Ohio and now executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding: “How blind can the state be? It was as if a bear was at the door, but they didn’t look out the window.” Phillis speculates, according to Bush’s report, that ECOT has “over billed the state by more than a half-billion dollars over its lifetime, while its founder, William Lager, showered politicians with campaign cash.”

Bush reviews ECOT’s early history: “ECOT opened in September 2000, and three months later, its first superintendent Coletta Musick, was ousted.  The Dispatch reported that the dispute supposedly centered on ECOT’s attendance claims, but Musick couldn’t discuss it because ECOT had paid her $124,233 in tax money to sign a nondisclosure agreement… Shortly after Musick left, three of ECOT’s five school board members, handpicked by Lager, also resigned.  Then-state Auditor Jim Petro issued an attendance audit in 2001 covering ECOT’s first year: The school initially claimed to have 2,270 students, but records showed only seven logged on to any of the school’s computer systems. Yet the school had still received full funding for all the students. ECOT was ordered to repay $1.6 million but was allowed to work off the debt.”

After the legislature strengthened Ohio’s charter school law a bit in 2015, the state could claim the right to demand computer log-in data before reimbursing ECOT for its students’ per-pupil state aid. ECOT, however went to court to protect its right, under a 2003 agreement, not to present log-in records to the state.  ECOT has had the state in court all year to prevent the state’s claw-back of $80 million for just two school years—2015-16 and 2016-17.  Until  ECOT’s sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West cracked down last week based on the school’s pending bankruptcy, the state has been unable to recapture the money.  The Ohio Supreme Court remains scheduled to hear the school’s final appeal in oral arguments on February 13.

Last summer, the Dispatch‘s Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel were the first to break the story about ECOT’s early history.  The reporters interviewed a disgruntled former-ECOT-employee, Chandra Filichia, employed by Lager as an ECOT registrar for several years, but now back full time as a waitress at the Columbus Waffle House where she met Bill Lager in 2000. Then bankrupt, Lager met with friends over coffee as they tried to come up with a new business venture.  Lager and his ECOT co-founder Kim Hardy mapped out their business plan on paper napkins.  Finally, “The two of them attended state-run classes on how to start a charter school, where they met Coletta Musick.  The former principal brought an actual education background to the team. Lager already had connections for obtaining computers and office equipment.  David Brailsford, a Toledo ticket broker, provided the early financing.”

In a new and detailed expose for Mother Jones, James Pogue revisits this early story, adding details and photographs to depict the online charter school’s humble beginning as a budding business venture.  Pogue re-interviews Chandra Filichia, the waitress later hired by Lager to recruit students for ECOT, about her disillusionment with the quality of ECOT’s academic program: “As a registrar, she described herself as being in a position to see the school’s attendance problems.  She said kids who hadn’t logged on in for weeks would call, after being threatened with truancy proceedings, begging for her help.”

Pogue  quotes Jeffrey Forster, a former superintendent at the school, responding to an inquiry from an Ohio Department of Education’s attorney about the process ECOT used to verify its student enrollment: “Forster recalled as an example how one day in 2009, ECOT gathered its teachers in a Columbus-area Doubletree hotel, and over the course of 10 hours had them verify attendance for as many as 14,000 students. They passed the forms around a string of lined-up tables and worked from memory as much as from login or attendance records… If no one recalled a student, the teachers—each of whom could have had dozens of pupils, sometimes many more—would look on their rosters to see if they could find a name.  Many of the students presumably had done their schoolwork in good faith, and if a student had definitively dropped out the teachers would decline to sign.  But the verifications seem to have had nothing to do with how much time the student actually spent doing classwork.”

Pogue also quotes Keith Richards, who as Newark, Ohio’s public school superintendent in 2006, wrote a formal letter of complaint to ECOT’s sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West.  Superintendent Richards also forwarded his complaint to State Auditor Petro: “Of the 12 former Newark students who have attended ECOT this year, we have found many violations… with regard to enrollment, attendance, instruction time and activity and withdrawal procedures.” Superintendent Richards continued, “We have documentation that shows that four ECOT students… do not have a computer or even in some cases, internet access in their homes.  We know of one student who was enrolled in ECOT for two years… and who was never given a computer or ECOT coursework.”

On Sunday, the first day of this year’s National School Choice Week, the Columbus Dispatch editorialized: “Ohio’s charter-school laws were from the start, exceedingly friendly to big campaign donors who would go on to use them to make a buck. Numerous attempts over the years to reform the laws and strengthen oversight have been stymied by the charter-school lobby and legislators friendly to it.”

As a way of marking National School Choice Week this year, please read Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel’s July 30, 2017 expose on ECOT ,  James Pogue’s report at Mother Jones: The GOP’s Biggest Charter School Experiment Just Imploded, and the Network for Public Education’s recent report, Charters and Consequences.

Then consider, as a contrast, our nation’s system of public schools, regulated by law and the democratic process to protect the rights of their students and protect the public’s investment. Privatization of education is not inevitable.  School choice responds to power and privilege.  Maybe it is time to consider the best way to protect the public good by strengthening the public investment in well regulated public schools—and distributing tax dollars more generously to the schools in poor communities whose needs are great and whose funding remains meager.


New “Charters and Consequences” Report from Network for Public Education Is Essential Reading

The Network for Public Education’s just-released investigative report, Charters and Consequences, paints a picture of corruption and the needless destruction of one of our society’s long-prized civic institutions. You’ll read about “charter schools gone wild” in California, where barely staffed storefront resource centers—sponsored by school districts 50 or 100 miles away—accrue state tax dollars to their sponsors’ operating budgets even as the sponsors do very little for the charter schools they supposedly oversee.  And you will read about Pennsylvania, where by state law, the charter gets every dollar—state and local—that would have been spent on the child in her public school, on the assumption that the local school district can reduce its expenses child-by-child, ignoring stranded costs for buildings and transportation and a school district’s inability instantly to resize its teaching staff.

The new report was researched and written by Carol Burris, the retired, award-winning NYC high school principal who now serves as Executive Director of the Network for Public Education (NPE).  Burris not only explored research and news reports but traveled to interview the superintendents, teachers and parents affected by rapid charter school expansion.

Burris’ stories of visits to various locations ground the report’s conclusions—what Burris learned as she looked at the operation of online charters, for-profit charters, and the impact of charter school expansion on host public school districts. Here are some of her conclusions:

“When cash is flush, and regulations are thin, those who seek to profit appear, and they ensure reform is thwarted.”

“Pennsylvania’s politicians, like those in so many states, have neither the stomach nor the will to curb the abuses of charter schools as they drain the public school coffers. America must choose either a patchwork of online schools and charters with profiteers on the prowl, or a transparent community public school system run by citizens elected by their neighbors. A dual school system with the private taking funding from the public simply cannot survive.”

And what about the way charter school operators persist in dubbing their schools “public” charter schools?  “Most charter school advocates are quick to point out that they are not part of the school privatization agenda. They place the adjective ‘public’ in front of ‘charter school’ to distinguish themselves from voucher schools. This branding effort has been somewhat successful—especially with politicians and the press. But simply saying charters are public schools does not make it true… Democratically elected school boards govern most public schools.  Nearly all charter boards are appointed and not accountable to parents or the community. Charters control the number of students they have, and they do not have to take students mid-year. The transparency laws, especially in spending, that public schools must follow can be ignored by charter schools… And in some cases, when the school shuts down, the school building and property is not returned to the public who paid for them, but is retained by the charter owners themselves.  And, by the way, charters can walk away and shut their doors whenever it suits them.”  “Many are governed by larger corporations known as CMOs.  Some are for-profit; others are not-for-profit, yet still present financial ‘opportunities’ to vendors and those who run the school.”

Burris identifies the very different consequences for the students enrolled: “The differences between public schools and charter schools go well beyond issues of governance. One of the strengths of a true public school is its ethical and legal obligation to educate all. Public school systems enroll any student who comes into the district’s attendance zone from age 5 to 21—no matter their handicapping condition, lack of prior education, first language, or even disciplinary or criminal record. Not only will empty seats be filled at any grade, but also if there is a sudden influx of students, classes must be opened… The neighborhood public schools have greater proportions of students who are poor, and who need special education services. Digging deeper you will find stark differences in the handicapping conditions of students who attend charter and public schools, with public school special education students having far greater needs. Even after initial enrollment, charters lose students through attrition…. The public/charter difference is that even as students leave, (in public schools) they are replaced throughout the school year by new entrants, who are welcomed by their principals and teachers… It has long been suspected that high attrition in the ‘no excuses’ charters results in part from codes of discipline that rely heavily on excluding students for what public schools would consider to be minor infractions.  The strict code of discipline also serves as a screen—only parents who want a regimented and highly disciplined environment need apply.”

The Network for Public Education concludes its report with recommendations adopted by its board of directors: “For all the reasons above and more, the Network for Public Education regards charter schools as a failed experiment that our organization cannot support… We look forward to the day when charter schools are governed not by private boards but by those elected by the community, at the district, city or county level. Until that time, we support all legislation and regulation that will make charters better learning environments for students and more accountable to the taxpayers who fund them.” NPE calls for a moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools until laws are changed to protect students and protect tax dollars.

Please read the Network for Public Education’s Charters and Consequences report, circulate it, and discuss it—along with the short policy briefs NPE has included in its toolkit on school privatization.