Ohio’s ECOT Mess—Like a Sink Full of Dirty Dishes

Exactly five months ago today, on February 13, 2018, the Ohio Supreme Court heard the final legal appeal by the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) trying to keep itself in business.

  • You may remember that ECOT, perhaps the nation’s largest online charter school—at least according to what we now know were its inflated attendance numbers—had already been shut down (on January 18, 2018) by its sponsor, the Education Service Center of Lake Erie West, and the Ohio Department of Education because it hadn’t enough money to pay its teachers in upcoming months along with what it owed the state.
  • And you may remember that the state has been trying to recapture money ECOT had collected in public tax dollars—$80 million overpaid to ECOT for only the two most recent school years after the state strengthened its oversight procedures in 2015— despite that everyone knows ECOT has been cheating the state since its founding in 2001.
  • And you may remember that William Lager, ECOT’s founder, has been milking profits out of the nonprofit school via his own two for-profit companies—IQ Innovations that provided the curriculum—and Altair Management that ran the operations.

Here is how the Ohio Supreme Court hearing—five months ago today—concluded, according to the Columbus Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel:  “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?’”

Now, you would think that by now the Ohio Supreme Court could have arrived at a decision on ECOT’s final appeal to stay in business—a case in which lower courts had found against ECOT at every level.  But as citizens of Ohio, we await ECOT’s death without any kind of closure even though we all know that the school has already been shut down—totally. The school’s assets have been sold off in a widely publicized auction and it no longer provides services for students.  The Supreme Court decision matters, because ECOT’s officials hope—if the Supreme Court finds for ECOT—the school wouldn’t be required to repay as many tax dollars and because the same officials say they hope to resurrect the school.

In just the past month, as we await the high court’s decision, and the state remains mired in the ECOT scandal: here are some things we’ve been learning.

For the Associated Press, Kantele Franko reports that 2,300 of ECOT’s supposed students are apparently unaccounted for.  Nobody knows whether they have dropped out or left the state or perhaps re-enrolled someplace else.  Franko explains that a thousand of the students were likely 18 years of age or older, but that 1,300 were school-age youngsters who ought to be considered truant if they are not re-enrolled.  Franko quotes Peggy Lehner, chair of the Ohio Senate Education Committee: “I think this just illustrates the whole problem that we’ve had with ECOT… You not only can’t tell how long the students signed on, you can’t even tell for sure if they even exist, so I am not surprised that there are students that they can’t track.”  So far, however, the Ohio Legislature hasn’t passed any new laws to better regulate attendance at Ohio’s e-schools.

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The Ohio Legislature has taken steps, however, to protect schools where ECOT’s former students are known to have enrolled—giving them safe harbor from stringent oversight because ECOT’s former students were known to be so far behind. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reports: “Leaders of both houses said it wouldn’t be fair to punish schools that absorbed the 12,000 students left without a school after budget problems forced ECOT, once Ohio’s largest charter school, to close mid year. The primary beneficiary of ECOT’s closure and of this new law is Ohio Virtual Academy, a for-profit online school that took in 4,000 ECOT students mid-year. That boosted its enrollment more than 40 percent, along with its income and potential profit.  With 12,000 students, the school is now Ohio’s online giant, replacing the mammoth ECOT.”  Ohio Virtual Academy is the state’s affiliate of the notorious K12, Inc., a national, for-profit, online-charter empire.  The legislation to protect schools serving students abandoned when ECOT closed was added quietly as an amendment to another bill just before the Legislature adjourned for summer break, and was opposed by several prominent Democrats. O’Donnell quotes Toledo Representative Teresa Fedor, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee: “Children move in and out of schools because of choice every day.  It’s outrageous that Ohio taxpayers have to foot more profits for e-schools and then give them safe harbor.”

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Now the ECOT scandal is creating political trouble for the Ohio State Attorney General Mike DeWine, who has suddenly filed in court to recover money from ECOT’s founder, William Lager under Ohio’s Corrupt Practices Act.  The Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel explains: “ECOT founder Bill Lager could be forced to personally pay back millions of dollars to the state, which plans to go after him for some or all of the $200 million in taxpayer money paid to his for-profit companies. Lager, who went from broke businessman to multimillionaire after opening the state’s largest online charter school, could face claims of breach of fiduciary duty, conflicts of interest in public contracts, and civil claims under Ohio’s Corrupt Practices Act.”

In other words, suddenly the Attorney General has noticed that Lager, who founded and served as an agent for a publicly funded online charter school, had a conflict of interest as he steered contracts to his own for-profit businesses. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell explains: “Lager, as a legal agent of ECOT, has a fiduciary duty to the school, DeWine and his staff say, which was violated by contracting with companies he owns for key services.”

What everybody wonders is why DeWine, who has been Ohio Attorney General since 2011, only decided to go after ECOT now in the summer of 2018—as he, Ohio’s 2018 Republican candidate for governor, actively campaigns. DeWine claims to have waited until another case set a precedent for cracking down on such conflicts of interest involving a charter school—this time a smaller charter school in Cincinnati. Now, says Mike DeWine, he can be assured that as the State Attorney General he has standing to crack down on charter school fraud.

Clearly, the ECOT scandal has become a hot potato for Republican candidates seeking state office in the November 2018 election.  Democrats across the state, reminding the public of William Lager’s huge political investments in Republican campaigns over the years, are also reminding voters that key Republicans including Mike DeWine—currently attorney general and Ohio’s Republican gubernatorial candidate in November, and Dave Yost—currently state auditor and Ohio’s Republican candidate for attorney general in November, have been ignoring for years Lager’s compromised position as the founder and agent of nonprofit ECOT who is also making huge profits by steering business to his own for-profit contractors.  And, as Patrick O’Donnell explains, Democrats are finding clever ways to use years of sordid Republican support for Lager to undermine DeWine’s bid for Governor.  When ECOT’s assets were auctioned online, the liquidator offered a costume worn by Eddy the Eagle, ECOT’s mascot—a giant Big Bird sort of character sporting an ECOT t-shirt. A still-mysterious purchaser acquired the costume for $153 plus taxes and fees.  Now Eddy the Eagle has been appearing at political rallies—still wearing his ECOT t-shirt, but now carrying a sign that reads, “Ask Me about Mike DeWine.”

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The Akron Beacon-Journal, The Toledo Blade, and the Columbus Dispatch have editorialized against ECOT and Lager this week, noting that while Attorney General Mike DeWine’s court action may seem timed politically to distract voters from the years when Republicans did nothing to crack down on ECOT, it remains a good thing DeWine is taking action, however belatedly. The Dispatch is clearest in defining the importance of DeWine’s recent action. Ohio’s ECOT scandal symbolizes a much larger problem that remains unaddressed by the Ohio legislature:

“Lager might have been among the most brazen, but he’s not the only charter school founder to abuse the process to enrich his companies and himself.  While all Ohio charter schools are by law nonprofit, many, like ECOT, contract with for-profit companies to operate them, and in many cases the for-profit companies are controlled by the founders of the schools. Ohio lawmakers have failed to change charter school law to explicitly ban these clear conflicts of interest. Having a court rule on them would be a welcome push in the right direction.”

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Despite ECOT’s Death, Ohio’s Unscrupulous Charter Schools Gobble Up State and Local Tax Dollars

Despite the death last January of the notorious Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, Ohio’s charter schools continue to suck money out of their host school districts, and, at the same time, many fail to educate the students for whom they are responsible.

The giant Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) was finally shut down after the state tried to collect $80 million the Department of Education calculated ECOT had overcharged taxpayers for the past two school years alone.  ECOT, which had been billing taxpayers (on a per-pupil basis) for thousands of phantom students the school had enrolled but who were not logging on to use the school’s curriculum, couldn’t pay the bill when the state demanded that the school return the money.  ECOT descended into bankruptcy.

Because of the way Ohio funds charter schools, not only the state but also the local school district loses money when a student leaves for a charter school. In Ohio the money follows the child to the charter right out of the general fund of the school district in which the child resides.  Many districts lose more money to charters than they receive in state aid.  As the Columbus Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel reports: “Ohio does not directly fund charter schools, instead subtracting the money from individual districts based on where a charter student lives. Traditional public school officials and advocates have complained for years that the system also diverts local tax revenue to charter schools along with state funding. Siegel quotes Columbus, Ohio school board member Dominic Paretti, who says ECOT gobbled up enough funds to have used up several local school property tax levies: “If you add up all that local share of dollars that has flowed to ECOT from Columbus schools’ taxpayers, it would erase the need for us to possibly ever have to go to those levies.”

The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow remains in the news because it will take years to wind up its affairs. Also Ohio waits for a final decision by the Ohio Supreme Court on the matter of ECOT’s final legal appeal to stay in business. In the meantime, Innovation Ohio has now calculated the total amount ECOT sucked out of  local school districts’ funds between 2012 and 2018.  During the six year period, for example, Columbus lost $62,897,188 to ECOT; Cleveland lost $39,405,981; and Dayton lost $20,200,830. Over the six year period, ECOT drained a total of $590,954,999 from Ohio’s school districts.

Many people push back with the argument that the money should follow the child; after all, the school district no longer has to pay expenses for that student. In a new report published by In the Public Interest, however, political economist Gordon Lafer dissects the stranded costs the child’s public school district must continue to cover: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community.  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district.” “If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.”

The Ohio State Board of Education, which has been increasingly proactive, voted last Tuesday to toughen the rules that regulate another of the state’s notorious charter school sectors: the Dropout Recovery Charter Schools—schools which have been held to far more lax academic standards than traditional public schools or other charter schools because they are said to serve students in trouble.

The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reports: “The state school board on Tuesday passed higher standards for… the nearly 90 dropout intervention charter schools statewide, as Ohio continues refining how to measure schools that help the most struggling and at-risk students earn diplomas. The tougher rules—covering graduation rates and which schools qualify for the easier dropout school report cards—continue Ohio’s gradual crackdown on charter schools that have skated by for years despite poor results.”  Until last week, the state required Dropout Recovery Charters to graduate 8 percent of their students in 4 years; as of last week, the State Board will now require 25 percent to graduate in 4 years, or the school will be held accountable.

To qualify as a dropout recovery school, the old rules said that a school must enroll at least 50 percent of its students who are far behind their peers and in danger of dropping out. Last week the State Board changed the rules to demand that Dropout Recovery Charters will need to prove (in 2019-2020) that 65 percent of their students are in real academic danger and need special services. In 2020-2021 that requirement will increase to 75 percent of the school’s students.  In other words, these schools won’t be able to pad their graduation rates and average test scores with students who don’t fit their mission as schools for “dropout recovery.”

Schools that fail to comply with the new standards will be in danger of closure, and their sponsors’ ratings will also be at risk.  Is there an urgent need for such reforms?  O’Donnell explains: “Invictus High School of Cleveland barely graduates 12 percent of its students in four years.” And yet there have been no penalties, and public funding (combined state and local dollars) have flowed freely to this deplorable school until now.

In what has become a series of scathing columns, retired editorial page director for the Plain Dealer, Brent Larkin describes the legislative corruption that has fed the growth of a poorly regulated charter school sector in an all-Red state without any kind of checks and balances: “Legislators in Ohio have long stood accused of serving not their constituents, but the people who fund their campaigns. But in the last eight years, House Republicans seem to have reached new lows in their ethical depravity… In April, House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger resigned in the wake of revelations he may be the target of an FBI probe… including ties involving the insidious payday lending industry. Before that, the House was ruled by Bill Batchelder, who spent four years protecting some of the most unprincipled bottom-feeders ever to prowl Statehouse corridors. Then, lo and behold, some of those who received favorable treatment, including the now-shuttered Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow online charter school, became clients of the Batchelder lobbying firm… ECOT was once the nation’s largest online charter school.  And arguably its worst… From 2001 to 2016, ECOT raked in more than $1 billion in taxpayer money.  In return, ECOT founder Bill Lager and his flunkies contributed more than $2 million to campaigns of Ohio politicians, a huge majority of that going to Republicans.  That money seemed to buy protection from a legislature that required only token policing of online charters.”

What’s clear in Ohio is that cleaning up this mess will require a long time and some very significant political change.

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.”

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.

ECOT’s Sponsor Asks Judge to Appoint Receiver for the School, But ECOT Presents Plan to Keep Going

Well… today is the day the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West has said it will terminate its sponsorship and end the operation of Ohio’s giant, notorious online charter school scam, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.

Last night the Columbus Dispatch reported that ECOT held an emergency board meeting yesterday, after which the school announced it had made a “final offer” to the Ohio Department of Education, that would include an agreement that William Lager, ECOT’s founder, would step down from Altair Learning, the private company he owns that manages ECOT. The plan would also, according to the Dispatch, “allow the state to continue recouping $80 million in overpayments of state aid,” and would allow the school to remain open through graduation this spring. Brittny Pierson, ECOT’s superintendent announced: “While we would have liked to remain open indefinitely, it’s clear the department will not accept a payback plan that would allow for that. Thus, we are left fighting to remain open until the end of the year to allow our students the opportunity to finish their school year….”

A final decision about the school’s future will perhaps be decided late this afternoon at a board meeting of the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, ECOT’s sponsor.

A Plain Dealer report added further detail about the school’s proposal:  if the Ohio Department of Education accepts the school’s offer, William Lager will no longer have any operational control of Altair Management, and no further fees will be paid to Altair Management. Neil Clark, ECOT’s lobbyist and spokesperson is quoted: “In negotiations with the Department, it became clear that they wanted concessions from Bill Lager personally… So we gave them what they wanted in order to stay open a few more months and not close our doors on our students suddenly.”

ECOT is one of the nation’s largest online schools, and a school with a terrible academic record along with the financial scam that has dominated its operation. Yesterday an Associated Press wire story described the possible closure of ECOT is a tragedy: “Many of the roughly 12,000 students turned to the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow because of illnesses, disabilities, bullying or other struggles that made traditional school environments challenging or impossible.  The uncertainty over the school’s future amid a dispute with the state has added adversity as students, parents and teachers try to make backup plans halfway through the school year… The state of Ohio says ECOT didn’t sufficiently document student participation, but ECOT says officials wrongly changed criteria to adjust funding.”

But before you worry too much about the potential closure of the school, consider a contrasting point of view in this in-depth May 2016 report from Motoko Rich in the NY Times:  “(M)ore students drop out of the Electronic Classroom or fail to finish high school within four years than at any other school in the country… For every 100 students who graduate on time, 80 do not… When students enroll in the Electronic Classroom or in other online charters, a proportion of the state money allotted for each pupil is redirected from traditional school districts to the cyberschools. At the Electronic Classroom, which Mr. Lager founded in 2000, the money has been used to help enrich for-profit companies he leads. Those companies provide school services, including instructional materials and public relations.”  Rich quoted Ohio State Senator Peggy Lehner, a Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee: “When you take on a difficult student, you’re basically saying, ‘We feel that our model can help this child be successful.’… And if you can’t help them be successful, at some point you have to say your model isn’t working, and if your model is not working, perhaps public dollars shouldn’t be going to pay for it.”

People in-the-know in Columbus have warned ECOT’s critics not to be overly hopeful about ECOT’s pending demise.  They have suggested that Bill Lager is so powerful that he’ll pull some kind of rabbit out of a hat. Lager is ECOT’s founder and the owner of the privately held, for-profit corporations that oversee ECOT’s operations (Altair Management) and create its online curriculum (IQ Innovations).

The two companies have been paid hundreds of millions in tax dollars since the school opened in 2000. Over that time, the state and local school districts have together paid ECOT $1 billion in per-pupil reimbursements for the students ECOT has claimed it has served. ECOT has insisted that a 2003 agreement meant it had only to document the school was providing 920 hours of curriculum annually for the students it has claimed without providing evidence they were logging in to use the materials.

Although many have predicted William Lager will still find a way to save ECOT, a Tuesday evening report by the Columbus Dispatch‘s Catherine Candisky made ECOT’s end appear increasingly likely. On Tuesday, ECOT’s sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West asked a Franklin County judge to appoint a receiver to take over the school. Judge Michael Holbrook has scheduled a hearing tomorrow in Franklin County Common Pleas Court.

In the affidavit filed with the court, ECOT’s sponsoring agency declared: “Given the lack of bond of the fiscal officer and ECOT’s financial position, there are no remedies ECOT will propose that will be adequate to Educational Service Center and it intends to suspend the operation of ECOT as soon as permitted.” “Because of requirements imposed on ECOT and the necessity to transition ECOT’s students to new schools forthwith, it is imperative that a receiver be immediately appointed to take control of ECOT, including its operations, records, assets and finances. If a receiver is not immediately appointed, it is unlikely ECOT will be able to comply with the statutory requirements, causing irreparable harm to ECOT’s ability to comply with winding up requirements.”

Apryl Morin, Director of Community Schools for the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, is reported to have explained: “State law… allows a sponsor to suspend operations of a community school and terminate its contract if the school fails to meet generally accepted standards of fiscal management, or violates terms of the contract or state or federal laws.” Under Ohio law, “community school” is the term the state uses for what is known elsewhere as a “charter school.”

Whether or not the school is permitted to remain open through the spring semester, what will undoubtedly drag on will be fighting about money paid to ECOT for students the school said were enrolled.  ECOT has not been able to document the attendance of thousands of students because the school has refused to maintain comprehensive log-in data. A 2015 law by which the legislature increased oversight of charter schools made it possible—beginning that year—for the state to demand documentation of student participation and to begin clawing back $60 million the state says was overpaid to ECOT for the 2015-16 school year and $20 million more for the 2016-17 school year.  In 2015, the state has alleged, ECOT over-reported its enrollment by nearly 60 percent.

A big question in Ohio is whether Lager can protect the money already paid to his private companies and thereby protect his personal profits.  In a second Dispatch story late Tuesday, Jim Siegel reported that Steve Dettelbach, the Democratic candidate for Ohio Attorney General and formerly the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, says the Ohio Attorney General must go after Lager’s companies: “There clearly, in this case, are facts that seem on their face to indicate there was misrepresentation, deceit and fraud.”

Last July, Dave Yost, Ohio’s state auditor and currently the Republican candidate for Ohio Attorney General, began escrowing $2.5 million every month from the funds being paid by the state for ECOT’s 2017-2018 operations because Yost said he worried about the eventuality we are watching this week: that ECOT would face bankruptcy and be let off the hook for paying back the money it is expected to return to state coffers.  Yost has said he believes ECOT should be held accountable, and his comments to the Dispatch indicate that he believes Lager may unscrupulously have used his private corporations “to limit the liability that stems from doing business.” Yost has expressed hope for recovering some if the money because, he explains, in 2008 the Ohio Supreme Court expanded the standard by which corporations can be held accountable.

The Dispatch reported that according to State Auditor Yost, “The state cannot go after the money it is owed until the Oho Supreme Court rules in ECOT’s ongoing legal challenge of the Education Department’s actions.”  Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for February 13. Yost added that based on a series of lower-court decisions against ECOT, he does not expect the Ohio Supreme Court to rule in ECOT’s favor.  “A very significant portion of the money that passed through ECOT ended up with Bill Lager… The Supreme Court ruling allows at least the potential for him to be personally liable for it.”

We’ll see if Bill Lager is ever held fully accountable. It will be a surprise if the state of Ohio and the local school districts from which charter tuition for ECOT has been extracted ever see much of the money.  The state’s attempt to recapture and protect tax dollars—at a rate of $2.5 million escrowed every month, has been going on for only six or seven months, which adds up to less than $20 million.

It is time Ohio’s taxpayers stop generating private profits for Bill Lager via the online Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. (This blog has tracked the ECOT scandal here.)

Ohio’s Legislative Democrats Challenge ECOT’s Claims in Amicus Brief Filed with Ohio Supreme Court

At the end of last week, explains Jim Siegel of the Columbus Dispatch, all nine Democrats serving in the Ohio Senate along with 30 of the 33 House Democrats signed an amicus brief urging the Ohio Supreme Court to find for the state and against the notorious Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), the state’s biggest charter school. ECOT has been challenging the state all year to let it collect state per-pupil funding without documenting that students are actually attending school.

The Ohio Department of Education has been trying to claw back $60 million over-paid to ECOT for the 2015-16 school year and another $19 million for 2016-17.  ECOT has continued to claim that state law does not require the school to document that students are actually logged in for 920 hours each year—working with the curriculum the school provides—but merely that the school provides the curriculum to the students it claims are enrolled.

ECOT has challenged in court the state’s demand that the school document attendance records if it intends to collect payments from the state. ECOT’s appeal is currently being considered by the Ohio Supreme Court. Plunderbund summarizes the history of the case: “ECOT filed the lawsuit more than a year ago claiming it is not required to document how many hours its students (are) engaged in learning…  After losing in Franklin County Common Pleas Court and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, ECOT has appealed to the Supreme Court of Ohio.”

The amicus brief filed last week by legislative Democrats follows the filing of another amicus brief in late October. The Columbus Dispatch reported that Bill Batchelder, the now-retired Speaker of the Ohio House, and four other former Republican legislators filed their own amicus brief with the Ohio Supreme Court. They claimed that the Ohio Department of Education “is violating legislative intent by requiring ECOT to verify its enrollment with log-in duration.” If you are having trouble parsing that outrageous nonsense (which seems to mean that the legislators intended for ECOT to amass tax dollars for students the school cannot prove are enrolled full time), it may help if you remember that only months after retiring from a career in the legislature including serving as Ohio’s House Speaker, Bill Batchelder opened a lobbying firm, The Batchelder Company, which represented ECOT’s founder William Lager until July, 2017.

In the introduction to their amicus brief, Ohio’s legislative Democrats expose ECOT’s bizarre argument: “The issue… before the Court is whether the Ohio Revised Code Chapter 3314 allows the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) the ability to use durational evidence of student participation to determine funding for internet- or computer-based community schools (e-schools).  Revised Code section 3314.08 and its subsections plainly incorporate durational requirements as part of the review of student participation meant to determine the amount of funding an e-school is entitled to receive from the state.  It is incontrovertible that ODE has the right… to use a durational element in a review of e-school funding claims.  It is incontrovertible as well that the legislative history of chapter 3314… shows that the legislature routinely amended the code to make enforcement and oversight of e-schools more thorough…  Finally, the Court cannot find in favor of the Appellant.  To do so leaves an absurd hole in Ohio’s constitutional guarantee to teach its children in free, publicly funded schools.  A decision that finds for the Appellant creates a void in which to take and squander taxpayer dollars without allowing any government oversight for the stewardship of those dollars…  The Ohio Constitution demands the state educate its children.  It cannot be Ohio’s founders and successive caretakers’ hope that those children would never be brought to a classroom (electronic or otherwise) yet the school and its administrators would reap lavish financial rewards.”

Toward the end of their amicus brief, Ohio’s legislative Democrats declare: “The entire system of public school regulation is geared toward ensuring children receive an education.  The record in this case reflects that ECOT and other e-school amici failed in this obligation and are callous toward that failure.  The state should not have to withhold funding to guarantee those who purport to be educators take basic steps to teach children in their charge, but this case shows they must.  The state does not seek this level of regulation for its own sake or to target e-schools, but to avoid the tragic reality we are confronting in which thousands of students have not received education for which their alleged school was paid.”

The attorney of record on the legislative Democrats’ amicus brief is Joe Schiavoni, the former Senate minority leader and an announced candidate for governor. Schiavoni, who represents the Youngstown area, has twice introduced bills to regulate attendance reporting by ECOT and Ohio’s online charter schools. Describing his proposed legislation, which has never been brought to a vote, Schiavoni commented:  “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.”

This blog has tracked the long ECOT scandal.

Another Chapter in the Saga of Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow

The Columbus Dispatch reminds us where we are in the story of ECOT, Ohio’s online charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. Currently the Ohio Supreme Court is considering ECOT’s “lawsuit fighting the state’s requirement that the online charter school repay $60 million for unverified enrollment for the 2015-16 school year. The state says the school owes another $19 million for the same reason in 2016-17.”

In an editorial last Friday, the Dispatch describes what seems to be the unraveling of the scam William Lager has been running for years with the support of Ohio legislators to whom Lager has generously contributed: “Overall, it has been a trying year for ECOT.  What was for years a smoothly operating business plan—signing up students in droves and billing taxpayers for their education, regardless of whether the students actually logged in to get one—was interrupted by state officials demanding accountability for all that money. Instead of taking the school’s word on attendance, the Department of Education demanded to see ECOT log-in records.  That led to a finding that ECOT had overbilled taxpayers by 143 percent, and an order to repay $60 million for the 2015-16 school year.  That was just for starters; the department is auditing ECOT for other school years. In September, it said the school owes another $19 million in overpayments, for the 2016-17 school year.  As ECOT is laying off employees and slashing its budget to cope with the clawback, Yost (Dave Yost, Ohio’s state auditor) has said that a proportional share of the repayment should come from the for-profit companies, owned by ECOT founder Bill Lager, with which ECOT contracts for services.”

It appears that ECOT officials launched a new strategy last week: blame ECOT’s attendance officer, who had complained all along that the school was not providing the adequate computer software for him to do his job. The Dispatch reports that, as of last Friday, ECOT’s truancy administrator, Patrick Tingler, has resigned. Tingler had testified last year in a deposition that ECOT’s software left him unable to add up the total number of days students were absent without an excuse. He had complained that he had to compute such records manually. The Dispatch adds: “Tingler’s truancy software did track consecutive days students missed, but ECOT crafted a more-relaxed truancy rule for itself than the one called for in the Ohio Revised Code. Instead of missing five or seven consecutive days to be considered truant, ECOT used 30 days, Tingler testified. This truancy measure appears nowhere in state law… After students log in, Tingler testified, he didn’t track whether they participated in any classwork, which is at the heart of the state funding lawsuit.”

ECOT’s other recently exposed strategy has been to rally powerful friends and endorsers behind its lawsuit challenging the Ohio Department of Education’s effort to claw back overpayments to the school.  Steve Dyer of Innovation Ohio reports that five former Republican state legislators filed an amicus brief supporting ECOT’s lawsuit. Together the five “have received more than $50,000 in campaign contributions from Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow founder William Lager, and nearly $135,000 total from Lager and David Brennan—Ohio’s charter school Godfather.”

The Columbus Dispatch explains that William Batchelder is among the five: “William G. Batchelder is described in the brief as the former House speaker, and a former common pleas and appeals court judge. It does not mention that, until late July, his lobbying firm, The Batchelder Company, represented ECOT founder Bill Lager.”

Steve Dyer adds: “In fact, the lead legislator on the filing is William Batchelder—one of the longest serving state legislators in history, who was Brennan’s bag man on Ohio’s school voucher legislation in the mid-1990s. Batchelder left the legislature in 2014. Shortly after that, he fell into a new job—lobbying for Bill Lager. Makes sense. Lager had paid him $45,000 (not to mention the tens of thousands he paid to the Ohio House Republican Caucus during Batchelder’s time as Speaker of the House). Batchelder collected $67,000 from Brennan, and even more if you include Brennan’s wife, Ann.”

Ohio awaits a decision from the Ohio Supreme Court.  Will the court permit the Ohio Department of Education to claw back millions in overpayments from taxpayers to the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow?  Or will the Court back ECOT’s claim that Ohio law was unfairly updated without enough warning when the state began demanding accurate log-in records to document student participation at the online school?  Steve Dyer reminds his readers that four of the seven justices on Ohio’s elected Supreme Court have received campaign contributions from ECOT’s William Lager.

This blog has covered the ECOT scandal extensively.