Cleveland Plain Dealer Cuts Experienced Education Reporter and Eliminates Full Time Education Beat

Late Friday afternoon, Advance Publications, the corporation that owns the Cleveland Plain Dealer, along with the separate newsroom at the cleveland.com website, finished purging the experienced beat reporters at the Plain Dealer. Patrick O’Donnell, the newspaper’s longtime education reporter, was one victim of the mass action. His loss will leave education policy, central to O’Donnell’s beat, to be covered by cleveland.com‘s statehouse reporters if education policy, primarily a children’s issue, rises to a level that will attract their attention.

Here is what has happened to the Plain Dealer in the past week.

The reporters at the Plain Dealer have long been unionized; the reporters at cleveland.com are non-unionized and less experienced. Everyone agrees that Advance Media used the pandemic-driven decline in advertising revenue as an excuse to break the union.

Covering this week’s staff reductions at the Plain Dealer as part of an article about the implications of the pandemic-driven collapse in advertising revenue across America’s newspapers, the NY TimesMark Tracy makes a careful distinction for Cleveland.  He points out:  “The near-collapse of this venerable Cleveland daily, owned by Advance Publications, coincided with the economic downturn.”  (Emphasis mine.)

The Cleveland Scene‘s Vince Grzegorek describes the two week purge at the Plain Dealer: “Fourteen Plain Dealer journalists were left after last Friday’s massive layoffs that saw 22 staffers depart. Those who remained were subjected, on the very next business day, to the cruelest and perhaps final installment of local union-busting by Advance Publications and the Newhouse family. They were told… that they could keep their jobs but not their beats, or even their geographic coverage areas. They would be dispatched to cover the hinterlands of Cleveland, not Cleveland itself.  Should they remain they would serve as a bureau covering Cuyahoga’s surrounding counties, but not Cuyahoga itself, and not so much of those counties that the news could be considered statewide in importance.”

After 10 reporters resigned on Friday, an editor brought in two weeks ago to accomplish the staff reductions, Tim Warsinskey spun the story: “Today, 10 of our reporters and photographers made the decision to voluntarily ask to be laid off. This comes a week after we regretfully parted ways with some (22) talented journalists… Over the years in any newsroom, there are waves of personnel changes. Folks who cover beats for decades move on. New and sometimes younger journalists step in and usually wind up surprising us all. ”

In a statement late Friday afternoon, the Plain Dealer News Guild contradicted the new editor’s spin: “Tim Warsinskey… said the 10 journalists leaving today made voluntary decisions to be laid off. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It was the Plain Dealer who decided to lay off these union workers.  The Plain Dealer and its out-of-state owners put dedicated and seasoned journalists in an impossible situation earlier this week in a blatant attempt to embarrass them by banning most of them from reporting on Cleveland, Cuyahoga County and the state.  For many, that meant being kept from covering the topics they know best and in many cases are regarded locally and nationally as experts.”

Here’s why the loss of education reporter, Patrick O’Donnell, will matter to Northeast Ohio.

In 2016, Cleveland’s alternative paper, the Cleveland Scene named Patrick O’Donnell as that year’s best Cleveland news reporter: “O’Donnell has guided Clevelanders through the data-rigging by state superintendent Richard Ross of low-performing online charter schools. He’s also kept CMSD (Cleveland Municipal School District) CEO Eric Gordon on his toes, reporting on the botched collection of E-rate rebates. He’s a crisp, prolific writer and a dogged reporter. And, much like the PD’s Brie Zeltner and Rachel Dissell, who reported on lead poisoning, and Michelle Jarboe, who reports on real estate, O’Donnell represents the value of hard-hitting, in-depth beat reporting…”  (All of these reporters have now been purged from the Plain Dealer newsroom.)

O’Donnell has kept readers in Northeast Ohio well-informed about the fraught policy environment for the state’s public schools over recent decades when Ohio’s Republican-majority legislatures have expanded charter schools, instituted five different statewide voucher programs, and pursued standards-based, test-and-punish school accountability.

O’Donnell doggedly tracked the 18 year, Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow scandal in which William Lager scammed the state by more than $1 billion by extravagantly inflating the enrollment numbers at his online school. O’Donnell drove a hundred miles to Toledo in January of 2018 to the meeting where ECOT’s sponsor, The Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West formally shut down the school.  O’Donnell broke the story before any other reporter tracked down the news.

And in the months after the notorious ECOT was shut down, O’Donnell covered the legal efforts by the state to recover some of the money.  He described, for example, an Ohio Supreme Court hearing in which the state charged that masses of so-called ECOT students were never logging in to the school’s website. ECOT’s attorney Marion Little “claimed that it should be paid by its enrollment, not by how long students spend in their online classes… Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor had pressed Little, after he argued that state law requires the school to be paid regardless of how little time students spend online. ‘How is that not absurd?’ O’Connor asked.”

In 2014, economist Margaret (Macke) Raymond, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and wife of prominent, far-right economist Eric Hanushek, stunned the audience at the Cleveland City Club by confessing that marketplace choice doesn’t really work in education, O’Donnell was there to cover it: “Her reasons for why states need to exert more control raised a few eyebrows. A self-described supporter of free markets, Raymond said a totally free market is not appropriate for schools. ‘It’s the only industry/sector where the market doesn’t work…Parent’s can’t be agents of qualify assurance.'”

In June of 2015, O’Donnell punctured Ohio’s claim that the state was cracking down on some of its charter school sponsoring agencies, which had been known for years for their lax oversight: “It turns out that Ohio’s grand plan to stop the national ridicule of its charter school system is giving overseers of many of the lowest-performing schools a pass from taking heat for some of their worst problems.”

Later that summer, he extensively covered the Legislature’s surreptitious takeover of the Youngstown City Schools, a move made without hearings in the middle of the night.  O’Donnell has also exposed the Plain Dealer‘s readers to research demonstrating that the theory of school district failure—on which the state takeovers are based—is itself flawed: “State test scores continue to rise right along with a school district’s affluence, and fall as poverty rates increase.”

And in the past two months, as the Ohio Legislature has refused to address the secretive expansion in last summer’s budget bill of EdChoice, a private school tuition voucher program, O’Donnell has reported on the confusing implications as school districts are being forced to pass school levies just to pay for private school vouchers.  EdChoice vouchers are funded not by the state but instead out of local school district budgets. As the pandemic shut down the state and legislators determined merely to freeze the program, as it is currently operating, for another year, O’Donnell explained:  “For public school teachers, school boards and school officials, keeping the status quo on vouchers continues a drain on school district budgets… School districts… which saw a large increase in voucher use this school year, will have no relief….Their costs could even increase….”

It is devastating when a newspaper rids itself of a reporter like Patrick O’Donnell, whose background includes in-depth knowledge about complex public policy. And it isn’t just the purging of a more expensive unionized reporter. The Plain Dealer, it appears, is entirely eliminating education as a specialized beat. The change will leave Northeast Ohio less informed. Education policy is nuanced and politically fraught. Expert and experienced education reporters matter.

ECOT Scandal Simmers Along as Ohio Election Issue this November

The surprise really ought to be that the 17-year, billion dollar ripoff of tax dollars by the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) has remained among high profile election issues in this 2018 election season.  After all, when USA Today profiled 28 American cities which have not yet recovered from the 2008 Recession, 9 of them were in Ohio: Warren, Youngstown, Mansfield, Marion, Lorain, Middletown, Sandusky, Akron and Dayton. Besides the economy, the opioid crisis is devastating parts of the state and healthcare more generally is an issue.

But the ECOT scandal hasn’t died as an issue on voters’ minds. Partly this is due to clever work by public education advocates and Democrats. When ECOT’s property was auctioned off, an anonymous purchaser paid $152 in taxes and fees to buy the costume of ECOT’s mascot, Eddy the Eagle. You can watch Eddy on twitter, @EddyEagleECOT, traveling to political events across the state carrying his “Ask Me About Mike DeWine” sign.  DeWine, running as Ohio’s Republican candidate for governor, has been Ohio’s attorney general since 2010 but only filed a lawsuit to recover tax dollars lost to ECOT last winter as the school was being shut down.

Because of the way Ohio distributes state aid and the way its charter school law works, over its 17-year life, ECOT ate up local school operating levy dollars in addition to state aid. A tech-savvy opponent of Ohio’s entrenched Republican majority has now set up https://www.kidsnotcorruption.com/ , an interactive website which describes ECOT: ECOT THE SCANDAL: Wondering just how bad is the ECOT scandal? Well, you should be angry because ECOT is the biggest taxpayer ripoff in Ohio history and Republicans are responsible. Sadly, it’s our kids who were hurt.” At this website it is possible to track how much each Ohio school district has lost to ECOT over the years: for example, from Cleveland’s schools, $ 39,405,981; from Columbus’ schools, $591,000,000; from Cincinnati’s schools, $ 14,648,988.

Several local school districts have now initiated legal action on their own against ECOT to recover lost funds, and three other school districts so far have filed in court to argue that they do not want Attorney General Mike DeWine, who earlier this year filed to recover funds from ECOT, representing them. The Dayton Daily NewsJosh Sweigart reports: “Springfield City Schools is joining Dayton Public Schools and the Logan-Hocking School District in arguing in court that they don’t want the state representing them in getting money from ECOT. The school districts argue that Attorney General Mike DeWine—the Republican candidate for governor—is soft on charter schools and has received campaign donations from ECOT founder Bill Lager… DPS and Springfield are both working with the Cleveland-based law firm Cohen, Rosenthal and Kramer. The firm is working on a contingency fee, meaning it gets paid only if the districts succeed… (T)he districts are skeptical that DeWine would be as aggressive as their attorney.”

William Phillis, executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, notes, in his October 11, Daily E-Mail, that Attorney General Mike DeWine has filed a memorandum opposing the intervention of local school districts in this case on their own because their interest is “substantively remote from the claims” in the Attorney General’s lawsuit.  Phillis notes that William Lager, ECOT’s founder and operator has made “essentially the same arguments” to oppose the intervention by specific school districts on their own behalf.  Phillis comments: “It is curious that both the Plaintiff and Defendant in this case are on the same page. That accord might validate the importance of intervention by the districts.  If they agree on this matter, maybe they will agree on more substantial issues.”

On October 8, the Cleveland Plain Dealer endorsed Cleveland attorney, Steve Dettelbach for attorney general in the fall election over his opponent Dave Yost, the current Republican state auditor.  Yost was elected to that post in November, 2010.  He has been accused of moving too slowly against ECOT, and the Plain Dealer‘s endorsement reflects this concern: “There is a tiebreaker in this decision however, and it comes in the form of the long-running ECOT… scandal that has hung like a millstone around the neck of a number of Republicans on the Ohio ballot this year who took large campaign contributions from those connected to the now-shuttered online school.  That includes Yost, who announced he’s given more than $29,000 in ECOT-related contributions to charity but denies the campaign donations impacted his actions… But the fact remains that the whistleblower’s warning came in 2014 and Yost’s office did not start investigating with gusto until 2016.”

Meanwhile, on October 10, Ohio’s U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D)—running for re-election in November, joined the ranking member of the Senate’s education committee, Patty Murray (D-WA) to request that the federal Government Accountability Office investigate the operation of online charter schools across the United States. In his re-election bid, Brown already leads his Republican opponent in November by an enormous margin, and perhaps Brown’s distant, Washington, D.C. request for an investigation of e-charter schools will barely ripple across Ohio.  But the request puts Brown, Ohio’s only statewide elected Democrat, on record as someone aware of the 17-year online charter school scandal in his home state, where Republicans have controlled the statehouse and all elected state offices since 2011.

In their letter requesting an investigation by the GAO, Senators Murray and Brown explain: “Research on virtual charter schools shows that students attending such schools perform much worse than their peers receiving in-person instruction in traditional, brick-and-mortar public schools…  Despite these negative outcomes, most states distribute funding to virtual charter schools as they would to brick-and-mortar schools.  And yet, there is limited information on how operators allocate those public dollars to educate students and manage company operations. This is especially problematic as the majority of virtual charter schools are either explicitly operated by or connected to for-profit companies that have perverse incentives to minimize the cost of instruction and student supports in order to boost their bottom line. Accountability models, funding formulas, and attendance policies were created for brick-and-mortar schools, and yet, state funding and accountability policies have not kept pace with the growth of virtual charter schools.  States and districts have yet to identify models that will effectively measure student participation and attendance rates in online schools.  As a result, it is difficult to determine how many students these schools are serving and how much funding they should receive.  For example, in Ohio, (the) Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) concealed attendance numbers as well as student participation and graduation rates for years before the state and local regulators acted.”

News Continues to Seep Out About How ECOT Cheated Ohio Taxpayers

Presumably now that yesterday’s primary election has occurred, Ohio State Auditor Dave Yost will release his long-awaited audit of the now-defunct, mega-online-charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT).  In yesterday’s primary election, Yost ran unopposed for the Republican nomination for Attorney General, and Mike DeWine, the current Attorney General, became the Republican nominee for Governor. Some time will pass before the November general election—time perhaps for voters to forget about what they learn in the audit about the way Ohio’s trifecta (House, Senate, Governor) Republican supermajority has handled the outrageous ECOT scandal.

Here are some of the revelations about ECOT that have recently seeped out.

We learned on Monday that, when ECOT was caught using a quarter of a million tax dollars to pay for television ads attacking the Ohio Department of Education for trying to crack down on ECOT for grossly inflating its attendance figures, ECOT quickly had one of its for-profit contractors pay the bill. Of course, ECOT’s only source of revenue—and the only source of revenue for the privately held for-profit corporations that managed ECOT and the communications company that handled its public relations—was the tax money paid to the school from the state as part of the school’s per-pupil tuition.

The attack ads represented an illegal use of tax dollars. As the Columbus Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel reports, “Although charter schools can legally run ads in an effort to recruit students, no public school—charter or traditional—is allowed to spend taxpayer money on political–type ads….”  You will remember that ECOT launched the television advertising campaign after the state began trying to claw back $60 million the state calculated it had overpaid ECOT in the 2015-16 school year because the online school had over-reported its enrollment by 60 percent. Here is how Siegel characterizes the television ads : “ECOT took to the airwaves, launching a string of television ads attacking the Department of Education, urging it to keep ECOT open and accusing it of wanting to end school choice and not caring about ECOT students.”

Siegel describes the transaction: “Using private companies owned by Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow school founder Bill Lager, plus a media-production company run by his daughter, ECOT tried to hide the source of payment for nearly $250,000 worth of TV attack ads aimed at the Ohio Department of Education.  That is the conclusion reached by the office of state Auditor Dave Yost, who, in a draft finding for recovery obtained by The Dispatch, lays out details of a plan designed to avoid the appearance that ECOT illegally used taxpayer money to pay for political ads.  As a result, Yost is ordering a pair of Lager’s ECOT-affiliated for-profit companies, Altair Learning Management and IQ Innovations, along with Third Wave Communications, where Lager’s daughter Jessica Harris is an owner, to repay ECOT a total of nearly $250,000 for illegally spending public money.”

ECOT was shut down by its sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, in January, and a receiver is using the school’s assets to repay ECOT’S creditors including the state, which has not yet been able to recapture the tens of millions of tax dollars overpaid to ECOT for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years alone.

We learned this week that an auction has been scheduled for Friday.  Among the items scheduled to be auctioned off were ECOT’s administrative computers, although the Dispatch reported late yesterday that the Columbus City attorney is trying to block the sale of computers, in case they may contain evidence needed in a future trial.  Earlier in the week, State Auditor Dave Yost sent investigators to copy data from the computers to be kept potentially as evidence if criminal charges are ultimately filed against the school and William Lager, who owns Altair Management and IQ Innovations, the for-profit operators of the school.  The Plain Dealer‘s Jackie Borchardt reported:  “A Franklin County judge last week ordered Ohio Auditor Dave Yost to issue a subpoena for the information. A Yost spokesman confirmed Monday that the unit that deals with cyber technology and fraud was onsite ‘mirroring’ data from computers and information ahead of the sale.”

Last week we learned that ECOT paid hush money as severance bonuses to several ECOT employees if they would sign a non-disclosure agreement promising not to compromise ECOT by sharing information that might be used to prove that the school was intentionally fraudulent in its over-reporting of student enrollment.  Ohio’s Plunderbund reported: “Stormy Daniels isn’t the only one who has been offered hush money.  Some past employees of ECOT were offered some, too…. News that several past employees were offered public money in exchange for agreeing not to disparage the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) follows an Associated Press story that quoted a whistleblower saying the Department of Education was informed last August that ECOT manipulated software to garner unearned money from the state… The whistleblower turned down two weeks of severance pay by refusing to sign the agreement—a decision that freed him to tell the public about ECOT’s attendance padding.”

WCMH-TV reporter Jason Aubry adds: “According to Sandy Theis, a member of Ohio’s Charter School Accountability Project, six individuals have confirmed with her they were provided non-disclosure agreements… to sign when they parted ways with the charter school.  At least two of the six individuals signed the NDA as part of their severance package where they were provided some money as part of a layoff.”

The Toledo Blade recently editorialized about the ECOT scandal: “The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, an online charter school now shuttered, is becoming a millstone around Republican necks this election year. And rightly so. The online school, chartered for nearly the last two decades in Lucas County but based in Franklin County, was forced into bankruptcy when state officials, after dragging their feet for years, went after ECOT’s exaggerated attendance claims… It sits in the lap of Republicans who accepted large donations from ECOT’s founder, William Lager, and then looked the other way for years as ECOT’s founder and chief vendor became rich with the state’s per-pupil funds… From the start, anyone could have known that an online charter school would not require the same level of per-pupil reimbursement that a regular bricks-and-mortar school would need.  And yet, ECOT received that money, and Ohio’s lawmakers went along with this baloney… The state of Ohio failed miserably…  and the children of Ohio are the victims.”