Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow Has Its Day in Court; Chief Justice Calls ECOT’s Claim Absurd

After a lengthy legal case in which Ohio’s biggest charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) has challenged the Ohio Department of Education’s attempt to crack down on what appears to be ECOT’s outrageous over-reporting of student attendance, ECOT had its final day in court. The Ohio Supreme Court heard ECOT’s appeal yesterday morning.

For about an hour the attorneys for ECOT and for the Ohio Department of Education presented their arguments, and the justices peppered them with questions.  ECOT’s attorney, Marion Little argued that Ohio law requires only that online e-schools document students’ formal enrollment and provide 920 hours of curriculum annually. Whether or not students actually participate in the school’s online education is, according to Little, not covered by Ohio law as a condition for the state’s per pupil funding of the school. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor expressed skepticism.

Here is the Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell on the argument made by the attorney for the Ohio Department of Education: “Department lawyer Douglas Cole repeatedly blasted ECOT’s position that it should be paid for every student enrolled at the school, regardless of how long they spend working on their online classes. ‘The department says that’s an absurd result and the court should be leery about reading that intent (into the law),’ Cole said.”

The Columbus Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel describes the final interchange between ECOT’s attorney and Chief Justice O’Connor:  “As ECOT attorney Marion Little finished his arguments for why, under the law, the online school should get full funding for students even if they only log in once a month and do no work, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor interjected. ‘How is that not absurd?’ she asked.”

Verification of e-school attendance has become a serious issue in Ohio, particularly for ECOT—Ohio’s largest charter school, which has been collecting tens of millions of tax dollars every year in per-pupil reimbursements. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell explained in a background piece in Sunday’s Plain Dealer: “ECOT is the biggest charter school in Ohio—bigger than all but 13 school districts in the state—and was once the largest online school in the nation. ECOT received more than $100 million in state tax dollars each year until the recent funding dispute, while drawing students and funding from 95 percent of the school districts in Ohio.  Those include more than 800 from Cleveland, more than 200 from Akron and about 120 from districts like Parma and Elyria.”

In the 2015-16 school year when the state instituted a requirement for more rigorous documentation that students were actually participating in the school’s electronic program, there was a gaping disparity between the number of students ECOT claimed were enrolled and the number of students whose active participation the state could verify.  The Columbus Dispatch‘s Siegel reminds us that, “The department found ECOT was unable to verify about 60 percent of its enrollment for the 2015-16 school year, and more than 18 percent of its enrollment for the 2016-17 year.”

Here are the exact numbers, according to the Plain Dealer’s O’Donnell: “Under the new requirements, ECOT could document class participation of only 6,300 of its 15,300 students for the 2015-16 school year—a 59% gap—leading the state school board to demand that ECOT repay $60 million.  Then again last September, the state found that for the 2016-17 school year, ECOT can properly document about 11,700 of the 14,200 students it claims.”  Based on the disparity in enrollment figures, the state school board last week voted to recover $19.2 million for the 2016-17 school year. For these two school years the state is now trying to recover a total of $80 million.

The Ohio Supreme Court’s decision on ECOT’s appeal is vitally important to ECOT’s founder William Lager and supporters of the school.  The Dispatch‘s  Siegel reminds us: “Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow’s attorneys were literally fighting for the school’s life in front of the Ohio Supreme Court… The state’s largest charter school shut its doors three weeks ago when its sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, suspended operations because the school was set to run out of money in March… It appears the only way those doors reopen next year is through a favorable Ohio Supreme Court ruling that says the department illegally imposed a retroactive rule change that led to the ECOT owing the state about $80 million for unverified enrollment… The Department of Education in 2016 beefed up its oversight and started requiring online schools to show through log-in durations and offline documentation that students were actually participating in minimum hours of ‘educational opportunities.'”

In an article written on Monday, prior to ECOT’s hearing at the Ohio Supreme Court, the Dispatch‘s Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel described the history of the case: “(T)he two-year fight between ECOT and the Department of Education has been unusually ugly.  Using television ads (which the state auditor is investigating for possible illegal use of state funds) and media spokesman Neil Clark, a grizzled Statehouse lobbyist, ECOT harshly attacked the department, its leadership, and more recently through an affiliated blog, Gov. John Kasich… Clark accused the department of ‘trying to eliminate school choice in Ohio through illegal actions,’ and he also has accused the courts of playing politics. Publicly, the Department of Education did not swing back much until a few weeks ago, when, in the wake of ECOT’s closure, a spokeswoman said, ‘The department has no confidence that ECOT intends to follow the law… We’re disappointed that ECOT and its for-profit vendors, IQ Innovations and Altair Learning Management, continue to prioritize their monetary gain over the best interests of 12,000 students.’ Since 2000, these companies, run by ECOT founder Bill Lager, have collected about $200 million in state funding.”

A huge issue prior to yesterday’s Supreme Court hearing was whether justices on the Ohio Supreme Court with a potential conflict of interest in the case ought to recuse themselves.  Ohio’s justices are elected and, therefore, depend on political contributions. Justice Terrence O’Donnell, for example, has been closely tied to ECOT and William Lager, ECOT’s founder and the owner of the two for-profit companies that provide ECOT’s curriculum and management. Here is the Plain Dealer‘s editorial, published yesterday to coincide with the Supreme Court’s hearing on the ECOT case: “In 2012, the last time O’Donnell ran for re-election, his campaign received $3,450 from Lager, as well as another $4,450 from employees of Lager’s Altair Management. O’Donnell then agreed after receiving a personal call from Lager, to speak at the 2013 ECOT graduation.”

When the Plain Dealer‘s O’Donnell described the Court proceedings yesterday morning, he confirmed that Justice Terrence O’Donnell’s questioning helped ECOT’s attorney Marion Little by leading Little to lay out ECOT’s justification for its theory of counting student attendance: “Justice Terrence O’Donnell had a different approach in his questions for Little and Cole. One sequence of questions allowed Little to affirm key points of the school’s argument that charter schools were always paid on the number of  students (who enroll without considering their participation) until the state changed its method in 2016.”

I encourage you to watch the archived footage of the February 13, Ohio Supreme Court hearing on ECOT’s case. Having watched the hearing myself, I’ll guess that the decision of the Ohio Supreme Court will fall on the side of Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor’s point that ECOT’s argument is absurd. I am assuming the court majority will decide not to to protect William Lager and his outrageous profits based on charging Ohio’s taxpayers tens of millions of dollars for students who have not really been actively engaging with ECOT’s curriculum despite that the students may have formally enrolled and received a laptop computer.

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