Ohio Auditor Moves to Recapture Profits from ECOT’s Contractors and Overpayment to Sponsor

For years in Ohio all sorts of people have been siphoning off profits from online charter schools—the giants like ECOT, smaller online schools, and private companies with which the schools contract for management and curriculum. There have also been overpayments to nonprofit charter school sponsors, the organizations that Ohio pays as a percentage of any school’s enrollment to authorize the opening of the school and subsequently to oversee its operations.  Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the state pays the sponsors to pretend to oversee charter schools while they pad their operating budgets with state money.

Now, suddenly, Dave Yost, Ohio’s state auditor, has stopped looking the other way. In a story this blog has been tracking, the state has now halted a 2003 practice of paying online charter schools a per-pupil fee merely for providing 920 hours of curriculum per year.  Beginning in 2015, the state has instead demanded that the schools prove students are actually actively engaging with the online curriculum for 920 hours per year.  In other words, the state has begun to demand accurate attendance reporting. The ensuing scandal has primarily involved the giant Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, ECOT, which has been over-reporting enrollment by 60 percent.  The state is trying to claw back $60 million in overpayments to ECOT for the 2015-16 school year alone, and is gathering data to bill ECOT for over-reporting its enrollment during 2016-17 as well.  ECOT has responded by trying to block the claw-back in court but has lost in a series of decisions. A final decision is pending from the Ohio Supreme Court.

In the meantime, Dave Yost, Ohio’s state auditor, once an ECOT supporter, has cracked down in an effort to protect what Ohio’s major newspapers have now established is a huge theft of Ohio tax dollars. Patrick O’Donnell of the Plain Dealer recently clarified what have become the stakes involved: “With ECOT cutting staff and losing students as a result of the state’s ‘clawback’ of funding, worries are growing that the school would declare bankruptcy to avoid repaying the money.”

Last week, Yost demanded that not only a charter school—in this case ECOT—must pay back the tax dollars it has overcharged the state, but also the private management companies with which the charter school has contracted must pay back any dollars they have collected due to the charter school’s misrepresentation of its enrollment. And the sponsoring agency which authorized the school and supposedly oversees it on behalf of the state must return funds it earned from the school’s misrepresentation of its enrollment.

Even while Ohio awaits a decision from the Ohio Supreme Court in ECOT’s case, Yost and the Ohio Department of Education have begun deducting into an escrow account a percentage of ECOT’s state reimbursement for the 2017-18 school year as a way for the state to recapture what ECOT owes taxpayers.

Here is Jim Siegel of the Columbus Dispatch explaining Yost’s demand that for-profit charter management companies and nonprofit charter school sponsors must also begin returning overpayments back into state coffers: “If a charter school must repay the state for unjustified enrollment figures, state Auditor Dave Yost wants the sponsor and for-profit companies that oversee and run the school to share the burden. Charter school boards… need to recoup payments made to management companies, software developers and sponsors that are paid based on a percentage of school revenue, he said.”

Siegel quotes Yost: “I understand that this may produce significant difficulty for some… (charter) schools, and for their management companies and sponsors… But if a school was over-funded, it must not result in a windfall profit for a private company, while the school itself suffers with reduced funding.”  Yost warns schools that they are responsible for going after the dollars overpaid to their sponsors and contractors: “(Y)ou have an obligation to go and retrieve a portion of that revenue… This isn’t an option, in our view.  You are a public entity, a public school.  You owe this to taxpayers, the state and to children to retrieve those resources.”  He continues: “I’m sure the private companies are not voluntarily going to write a check for several million dollars and send it back.”

Siegel adds that William Lager’s privately held companies, IQ Innovations (which provides curriculum for ECOT) and Altair Management (which operates the school), have profited, just as ECOT’s nonprofit sponsor has also over-collected from ECOT: “The state Board of Education this year, following a department attendance audit and a ruling from a state hearing officer, ordered ECOT to repay $60 million to the state after the school was unable to verify roughly 60 percent of its enrollment for 2015-16.  Yost said that means ECOT should recoup $9.6 million from IQ, $2.4 million from Altair and about $900,000 from the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West in Toledo, the school’s sponsor, which gets 1.5 percent of its revenue each year.”

Is there reason to fear that ECOT will declare bankruptcy to avoid paying back the tax dollars the state has overpaid?  Siegel reports that in late July, “ECOT”s board voted to slash spending by $56 million for the coming school year, including the layoff of 250 employees.”  Then last Friday, ECOT’s superintendent, Rick Teeters announced that he will resign next month to spend more time with his family.  Dave Yost worries that William Lager, the owner of the private, for-profit companies that run ECOT, will try to protect his profits by having ECOT declare bankruptcy.  In the Plain Dealer, Patrick O’Donnell reports, “Yost… questioned whether ECOT has the ability to declare bankruptcy.  He called it a public entity subject to different bankruptcy rules that individuals or companies and said it would need permission from the state tax commissioner to do so.” O’Donnell speculates as well that, “Yost’s stance may give other boards legal cover to demand re-payment from contractors, since they have now been ordered to do it.”

Overpayments by the state to ECOT for the school’s apparent gross inflation of its enrollment figures are much larger than for smaller online charters, but Jim Siegel reported on Saturday that, “(O)ther online charter schools also face repayments, and a few others have shut down. One school, TRECA Digital Academy, recently reached a tentative settlement to repay $5 million, to be deducted over five years… The Department of Education also reached a smaller settlement with the Massillon Digital Academy… Akron Digital Academy is awaiting a decision from the hearing officer. Appeals are ongoing for Buckeye Online School for Success, Findlay Digital Academy, Quaker Digital Academy and Reynoldsburg-based Virtual Community School, which was just taken over by the state.”  Three online schools have closed—Provost Academy (which paid back the state in full), Marion Digital Academy, and Southwest Licking Digital Academy, which still owes $140,500 to the state for inflated enrollment figures it submitted.

The state’s overpayment to the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West in Toledo—ECOT’s nonprofit sponsor—is only a tiny piece of the ECOT scandal. But Ohio’s reliance on nonprofit organizations as charter school sponsors—agencies often located across the state from the schools they supposedly oversee—agencies that frequently lack any experience in education—agencies poorly regulated by the state—is an enormous problem. In ECOT’s case, one can only imagine the sort of lax oversight imposed by the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West when one observes the massive theft of state dollars paid to ECOT for phantom students. Last week this blog covered other serious problems with Ohio’s nonprofit charter school sponsors.

No Shame: ECOT Continues to Cheat Ohio Taxpayers Even While Awaiting Final Court Decision

Two prominent and long-experienced national organizations, the NAACP and the National Education Association, have passed resolutions demanding a moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools until some kind of oversight can be put in place to protect students and the investment of tax dollars. Charter schools are being authorized under the laws of 43 states, with an outrageous lack of public oversight in some states.

Ohio and the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow provide the very definition of the problem. ECOT, as the giant online school is known, awaits a final decision from the Ohio Supreme Court that would permit the state to claw back $60 million in overpayments from the taxpayers to the school for the 2015-16 school year alone. During that school year, ECOT claimed it was serving 15,322 full-time students, but the state has been able to verify only 6,800.

Thanks to Ohio’s major newspapers, the scandal continues to be exposed as each new chapter unfolds.

Here is how the Columbus Dispatch began its editorial on Sunday: “ECOT’s brazen plundering of the Ohio treasury continues to set a new bottom for shameless. The state’s largest online school, told to repay $60.4 million overbilled in a previous school year for students who were MIA, appears to be inflating current enrollment—overcharging the state to raise money to repay its debt. The fear is that Ohio taxpayers will never see a dime of what ECOT owes. The enterprise is employing the time-honored strategy of ‘extend and pretend’: Ignore state orders on how to properly count enrollment for reimbursement.  Appeal the Ohio Department of Education’s orders, upheld by a succession of Ohio courts, while continuing to claim that the state has no right to document that students actually are logging in and getting educated. Drag out the legal fight, a no brainer since the school is paying its legal bills with taxpayer dollars.  And before the Ohio Supreme Court rules, grab as much state cash as possible.”

In Cleveland, the Plain Dealer also editorialized on Sunday: “Ohio Auditor Dave Yost recently sent a letter to the Ohio Department of Education advising it to ‘impound a significant portion of any further funding’ to the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow until the state can verify the online charter school’s student attendance numbers for the upcoming school year. There are good reasons for this: ECOT has not repaid Ohio the $60 million in reimbursements it owes for what the state determined was ECOT’s 59 percent overstatement of student attendance figures for the 2015-16 school year.  ECOT is arguing its student numbers were correct but, so far, the courts have sided with ODE.  ECOT’s appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court is pending… Yost is right. ECOT claimed 15,300 online students two years ago but could only provide evidence to verify 6,300, according to ODE.  Why take at face value its estimate of 14,000 students this coming academic year?”

On Sunday, the Dispatch also published an extraordinary investigation—by reporters Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel—of ECOT’s history.  They remind us that besides donating huge political contributions that have endeared ECOT to Ohio’s legislators, William Lager, ECOT’s founder and the owner of the two privately held companies that provide the school’s curriculum and its operations, has featured those with political influence as the school’s annual commencement speakers including Ohio Auditor Dave Yost at three commencements, Governor John Kasich, and even Jeb Bush, a national leader promoting school privatization.

But Yost has now come to understand that Lager and ECOT are trying to cheat Ohio’s taxpayers.  On July 21, Patrick O’Donnell reported for the Plain Dealer: “The state needs to send less money to the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow… state Auditor Dave Yost says, or it may never recover the $60 million the school already owes.”  In a letter to state education superintendent Paolo DeMaria, Yost asked the state to escrow part of the state’s funding for ECOT for the upcoming school year until ECOT’s enrollment figures can be verified. According to Yost’s request, the state has begun deducting $2.5 million each month from ongoing payments for 2017-18. “Instead of receiving a little over $8.1 million in state tax dollars toward opening the school again this fall, ECOT received just under $5.6 million earlier this month. But that 5.6 million may be too much, Yost said. ECOT is claiming 14,000 students again, Yost noted, so the per-student payments to the school are possibly too high…”  Yost explains: “It is virtually the same number of students ECOT claimed for the 2016-17 school year, and far in excess of the audited number your department found supported for the 2015-16 school year.”  “I am concerned that ECOT is overstating its FTE (attendance) for cash-flow purposes, and the state may not be able to claw back any funds that are improperly distributed to ECOT.”

Yesterday O’Donnell added that the Department of Education has decided to withhold 12 percent of ECOT’s funding for the upcoming school year until the state’s audit of active participation by ECOT’s students is complete: “These cuts would be added to the $2.5 million monthly deductions the state is already taking from the school’s funding to cover the school’s past attendance issues.”

From Candisky and Siegel’s investigation we also learn that ECOT was always envisioned primarily as a money-making scheme, not an experiment in education reform. The idea was not hatched by people with a background in pedagogy, school psychology or educational philosophy: “After making and losing his first fortune in the office supply business, William Lager hatched a plan for Ohio’s first online charter school on the back of napkins over countless cups of coffee at a West Side (Columbus) Waffle House. ‘He was flat busted broke, worse than we were. He would sit there all day long drawing on napkins,’  said Chandra Filichia, a former waitress at the Waffle House on Wilson Road who was tapped to help recruit Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow’s first class of students and worked 16 years for Lager… Lager, Filichia recalled, would photocopy $5 coffee cards—each good for 10 cups of coffee—to save money while working on his business plan with longtime friend and ECOT co-founder Kim Hardy.  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… But once Lager inked… (the) deal, his financial woes didn’t last long.  ECOT—and his affiliated for-profit companies that provide instructional materials, services and marketing—have brought Lager a fortune.”

Here is what ECOT has amassed—all from tax dollars: “From 2001 to 2016, ECOT took in more than $1 billion from Ohio taxpayers, and of that total paid more than $170 million to Lager’s companies to run the day-to-day operations of the school and provide it with educational software.”

In the fifteen years from 2001-2016, Lager bought a $300,000 condo in downtown Columbus, a $433,500 vacation house on a lake, a $995,000 house in a Columbus suburb, and a $3.7 million house in Key West, Florida. He has also donated $2.1 million in political contributions to Ohio Republicans.

In 2015 the Ohio legislature strengthened the charter school law to prevent conflicts of interest and double dealing, but by that time, ECOT was well established.  In 2001, report Candisky and Siegel, “Lager and Hardy hand-picked the ECOT board that employed their company. In fact, the man who signed the school’s agreement with Lager’s Altair management, ECOT’s board chairman Donald Wihl, was a friend who owned the condo where Lager was staying.  Wihl’s daughter was employed as the ECOT board’s secretary.”  Once then-state auditor Jim Petro began investigating the school back in 2001, three board members resigned along with the director of educational services, and the director of academic affairs. In that same year, Lager’s partner Hardy also resigned.

Petro discovered that the state had, in 2001, paid ECOT $1.9 million during a two month period for students for whom the school could not document any hours of instruction: “An April 2002 audit said the school was overpaid $1.7 million in 2001 after ECOT ‘did not utilize an internal audit function to monitor the hours of educational opportunity. Petro also found the school had no procedures for withdrawing students and no policy on how enrollment would be counted, nor was information available on whether all students got appropriate computer equipment.”

Candisky and Siegel continue: “Petro, who later became a Lager ally and spoke at ECOT’s 2006 commencement, wrote to the Department of Education in March 2000 that… (charter) school boards are made up primarily of employees and board members from management companies and are not representative of the particular community.’… But the legislature wouldn’t take action to significantly limit conflicts of interest and provide stricter oversight of school operations and sponsors for 13 more years.  Meanwhile, two things grew: Ohio’s poor reputation among national education experts as the Wild West of charter schools, and political contributions from for-profit school operators, particularly Lager and David Brennan, founder of another charter school operation, White Hat Management.”

Once a charter school scam is well established—especially an operation where profits are involved and are being strategically invested in campaign contributions to the legislators who would have to do the regulating, it is virtually impossible to protect the taxpayers and the children. Ohio’s ECOT perfectly exemplifies why a national moratorium is needed on the authorization of new charter schools until oversight can be imposed.

Ohio’s Notorious E-Charters Evade Regulation: ECOT Saga Drags On and On and On

Ohio’s biggest charter school, the notorious e-school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), held a big rally in Columbus early this week. Rick Teeters, ECOT’s superintendent, told all the school’s teachers and students to show up, even though the rally happened in the middle of the school day. Maybe everybody was expected to go home afterwards and study online until midnight.

ECOT’s founder, William Lager, made an emotional speech bragging that his school has provided more choices for those who have few. Lager didn’t mention, of course, the hundreds of millions of tax dollars the school has been receiving year after year from the state on a per-student basis. Neither did he say anything about the $60 million from last year alone that the Ohio Department of Education says ECOT fraudulently charged the state for students who did not really attend school at ECOT last year. ECOT is trying to avoid paying back the money.

In Ohio, pretty much everybody knows that ECOT is a huge scam, but because Ohio is an all-Republican state without any checks and balances at all, and because William Lager keeps on contributing to the campaign coffers of members of the legislature, no strong law has been passed to stop the ripoff.  And now, in the biennial budget bill the House passed on May 2, nobody will even claim the language that mysteriously appeared to undermine oversight of Ohio’s charter school sector.

Under enormous pressure from the press last year, the legislature did tighten the regulatory process to demand that the online academies must now provide documentation that students are at their computers doing 20 hours per week of work in order to be counted.  ECOT has continued to maintain that it has, as the law has specified for years, been providing 920 hours of curriculum for its students each year. But, says ECOT, the state never asked for attendance records in the past, and the state changed its demands suddenly and illegally.

ECOT has been in court trying to block the new regulations. However a Common Pleas Court rejected ECOT’s demand that the court block the state’s effort to claw back two-thirds of what ECOT was paid last year, when ECOT was able to document the participation of only 6,300 of the 15,300 students the school claimed were enrolled. After ECOT lost its case in Common Pleas Court, ECOT appealed the case.

Working assiduously to bog down the court proceedings, ECOT demanded the removal of appeals court Judge Gary Tyack because he made the mistake of telling the truth in a comment he made about ECOT.  Here’s what Tyack said: “The General Assembly cares more about what Mr. Lager (founder of ECOT) and David Brennan (founder of other large e-schools) think than about what I think, frankly.” “It’s hard to ignore the fact that between the two of them they’ve probably gotten a billion dollars worth of State funds that would have gone to public schools because of their clout. In Russia we call them oligarchs. Here, we don’t call them anything. We call them influential donors.”  Maureen O’Connor, the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, refused this week to capitulate to ECOT’s demand that Judge Tyack be removed from the case. The case now moves forward; we must await the final decision of the Court of Appeals.

ECOT not only tried in court to block the state’s crackdown on e-school attendance reporting; it also filed an administrative appeal in the Ohio Department of Education itself. But this week ECOT lost that administrative appeal. On Wednesday, the Ohio Department of Education denied ECOT’s administrative appeal and demanded that that ECOT pay back $60 million in fees it overcharged the state last year. The decision of the Department of Education’s hearing officer is not final; the state school board  still needs to vote to seek recovery of the money. We’ll see how that goes; after all, the Ohio state board of education is dominated by a coalition of elected Republicans and members who have been appointed by Republican Governor John Kasich.

Then there are the mystery amendments that appeared in the fine print of the budget bill passed by the Ohio House on May 2.  Most of these last-minute amendments would weaken state oversight of the organizations that sponsor charter schools—sponsors who are paid by the state to provide oversight but who have no incentive to close the huge e-schools they supposedly oversee. The amendments are  pro-ECOT and anti-regulation.

Andrew Brenner, the chair of the House Education Committee, inserted a last minute amendment to change the way sponsors are rated. The state currently judges charter school sponsoring organizations by the quality of the schools they are supposed to oversee, but it weights the schools according to the number of students they serve. Here is the Akron Beacon Journal’s editorial board commenting on the change proposed by Andy Brenner to weight every school—no matter its size—equally in a sponsor’s evaluation: “For instance, ECOT has 15,000 students, or nearly one-half of those enrolled in the 59 schools sponsored by the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West. Treat the academically challenged ECOT as one school, and it would rate as a tiny fraction of its sponsor’s portfolio.  The sponsor would receive a higher rating, assuming its other schools perform well enough… In the case of ECOT…. with those numbers in mind, the re-weighting, as proposed by Andy Brenner, diminishes the commitment to students, or what charter schools claim as their first purpose. ECOT would be better off. So would the sponsor.”

Nobody knows who added other language to the House budget to protect the organizations that sponsor the huge and notorious online charter schools. Some legislators are even blaming the Legislative Service Commission, the agency that crafts the language of bills, for adding the language that favors ECOT and its sponsor. The mysterious amendment to the House budget, explains Patrick O’Donnell of the Plain Dealer, “would prevent certain ESCs that take on online charter schools from losing oversight and income from the schools, regardless of their (the schools’) ratings in the future.”

Doug Livingston of the Akron Beacon Journal provides important background about the incentive the Ohio’s legislature has provided for  years encouraging the Education Service Centers to sponsor the giant online academies: “Sponsoring large e-schools is a money-maker for educational service centers….  For each student enrolled in one of their charter schools, the sponsor gets 3 percent of the state funding that follows the students from the local school district where he or she would otherwise attend. At e-schools with more than $100 million (every year) in state revenue, the sponsor fee can be worth millions.” Now the mysterious new budget amendment further protects the Education Service Centers—letting them off the hook when the schools, which they are being paid huge sums to oversee, fail to perform.

Even the pro-charter Thomas B. Fordham Institute wants better oversight of Ohio’s e-charters and wants the mystery amendment removed from the fine print of the state budget.  Livingston quotes Chad Aldis of the Fordham Institute explaining what is wrong with the mystery amendment: “The change would allow an educational service center that sponsors charter schools to bring on a statewide online charter school and maintain sponsorship of it even if the academic outcomes were poor… Essentially, the sponsor would have an exemption from the academic accountability portion of the state’s sponsor evaluation system.”

The ECOT saga drags on and on in Ohio, where it would seem money and state politics make charter school regulation impossible.  Here, summarizing the current operation of Ohio’s super-majority, one-party, Republican legislature, is Columbus Dispatch columnist Darrel Rowland: “They didn’t teach this in ‘How a Bill Becomes a Law.’ A mysterious amendment makes its way into a state budget bill. One by one, lawmakers, including the speaker of the House, express surprise that the three-paragraph provision was part of the measure they just approved, and all deny knowing how it got there. A Legislative Service Commission staffer eventually gets the blame.”

This blog has covered the long-running ECOT saga here.

Powerful ECOT Blocks Crackdown on Inflated Attendance Reports from Several Ohio Online Schools

For years and years, Ohio has negligently failed to demand that online charter schools submit accurate attendance records. In the meantime the state has kept on paying the schools for the students they claim to serve. While the state has continued to say it would crack down, oversight has been blocked by power and money.

More specifically, in 2016, the Ohio Department of Education began asking for attendance records, but the largest of the schools, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), said it hadn’t been collecting the information because the state had never asked the school to document that students were spending time online at the e-schools. The state, it said, had required the school to provide 920 hours of curriculum for its students every year, but not to prove the students were actually sitting at their computers using the materials. It seems clear that political contributions to Ohio’s legislators from William Lager, ECOT’s founder and for-profit operator, ensured that the legislature avoided consideration of any kind of law to demand the submission of an accurate student count.

A year ago, the legislature changed the rules and asked the Ohio Department of Education to begin collecting the data.  And the Department conducted a preliminary analysis that showed that ECOT, which collected $109 million for educating the 15,300 students it says it serves, must return $64 million for the 2015-2016 school year alone. ECOT went to court, and after a judge ruled that ECOT must pay back the money and start submitting accurate numbers, ECOT appealed the decision. This blog has been tracking the ECOT scandal.

Patrick O’Donnell reports for the Plain Dealer that, “ECOT lost its first challenge in Franklin County Common Pleas Court and is now appealing its case to the 10th Ohio District Court of Appeals. That court had its hearing on the case earlier this month and a ruling could come in the next couple of months. A dispute over one of the judges on the three-judge panel comparing ECOT founder William Lager, a major donor to Ohio Republicans, to a Russian oligarch could delay that ruling.”

O’Donnell explains that other online schools in the state have also been found inflating their students’ numbers, but as ECOT’s lawsuit drags on, the state education department has been unable to crack down on the smaller virtual academies: “Ohio’s attempts to recover about $20 million in state tax funding from eight online charter schools has stalled for more than six months while a much larger battle over more than $60 million from e-school giant ECOT lingers in appeals court.  The year-long fight between the Ohio Department of Education and ECOT… has also delayed the state legislature from sorting out how to avoid e-school funding controversies in the future.  Eight months after Ohio Auditor Dave Yost called on legislators to find a better way to measure how well online schools educate students and a better way for Ohio to fund the schools, legislators have not acted.  Despite many agreeing that Ohio needs to overhaul its funding of online schools, no one has suggested a single bill, held a single hearing or publicly called for any research.”

Actually Andrew Brenner, the chair of the Ohio House Education Committee, has now proposed a change in the e-school evaluation process.  But it is a change that would relax state oversight instead of strengthening it.  Today, in the way Ohio oversees the many nonprofit organizations that are permitted to sponsor charter schools, there is a requirement, “that the academic performance of the multiple charter schools in each overseer’s portfolio of schools be weighted by the number of students in each school… As the evaluation ratings stand now, the state report card grades for a 10,000-student online school count 50 times as much as grades for a small, 200-student neighborhood charter school.  If the big school has great state grades under current rules, the (sponsor’s) entire portfolio  of schools looks good when results are averaged together. But if the bigger schools have poor grades, as some large online schools do, the entire collection of schools looks bad.” In fact the huge online academies are notorious for their dismal ratings.  O’Donnell quotes Stephen Dyer, a former legislator and journalist describing Andrew Brenner: “He’s doing the ECOT fix. Wonderful.” O’Donnell confirms Dyer’s suspicion: “ECOT and its supporters backed a similar proposal two years ago, but failed to gain legislative support.”

Joe Schiavoni, the minority leader of the Ohio Senate, who has repeatedly proposed a bill to crack down on lax attendance reporting by the e-schools, believes the proposed change is aimed at relaxing standards for the all-powerful virtual academies: “This would be a break for them. The cynic in me says they are looking for a break.”  The bill Schiavoni has introduced in at least two different legislative sessions to regulate collection of attendance records at the e-schools has never made it out of committee in Ohio’s all-Republican dominated legislature.

Despite that many people across the country seem to believe it is possible to regulate charter schools to stamp out fraud and corruption, watching Ohio’s ECOT scandal has convinced me that money and power will render significant oversight impossible. However, in the past week there has been one small bright spot.  Paolo Demaria, Ohio’s relatively new Superintendent of Public Instruction, just turned back $22 million in federal Charter Schools Program funds to the U.S. Department of Education. The federal Charter Schools Program invests in new charter school startups, and to his credit, Demaria says Ohio can’t use all the money because there are not enough quality applicants.

Here is the back story, in case you have forgotten. In the summer of 2015, a huge public outcry arose over $71 million granted to Ohio from the federal Charter Schools Program. David Hansen, the man who wrote the federal grant proposal, was fired because his proposal was based on the false promise that our legislature had cracked down on sponsors of charter schools. But the U.S. Department of Education made the grant anyway. Ohio’s Congressional delegation and especially Senator Sherrod Brown demanded that the U.S. Department of Education provide extra oversight of Ohio’s grant because our state’s regulations have been notoriously weak.

Now Superintendent Demaria explains that Ohio has cracked down—at least somewhat—and due to stronger oversight, the state does not have enough strong applicants to use all the grant money. Again, here is Patrick O’Donnell: “In a letter sent last week, Demaria said the state will use $49 (million) of the $71 million over five years, not the full amount. He said the lower amount ‘more accurately reflects our eligible pool of prospective community school grantees based on our shared priorities’ of only giving money to strong schools.”  Big problems remain with state oversight of the sponsors.  O’Donnell reminds us: “Only five of the more than 60 sponsors in Ohio earned ‘effective’ ratings and none were rated ‘exemplary’ in the fall. The vast majority were rated as ‘ineffective’ or worse… The state is looking to shut down five charter school sponsor authorizers it rated as ‘poor’… as part of a plan to improve charter schools across the state.”

Superintendent Demaria deserves credit for his integrity.  We shouldn’t hold our collective breath, however, about the capacity of Ohio’s legislators to create regulations that might turn off the flow of political contributions.

EXTRA: Retired Ohio School Superintendent Describes the Scandalous Operation of ECOT

Bill Phillis, Executive Director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, interviews Keith Richards, retired school superintendent of several Ohio school districts over a 40 year career.

In this series of youtube videos, Mr. Richards describes his experience with the unscrupulous, online charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, known in Ohio as ECOT.

Keep in mind that when Mr. Richards uses the term, “community schools,” he is describing charter schools.  Ohio law refers to charter schools as “community schools.”

Part I

Part II

Part III

ECOT Tries to Hold On to Over $60 Million in Tax Dollars It Collected for Phantom Students

The Ohio legislature is in the midst of its lame duck session—the opportunity for lawmakers to do something about the outrageous scam at the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT).  And today, according to Plunderbund, Senate Bill 3, an omnibus education law with 29 amendments is to be introduced in the House Education Committee.

A big question is whether the legislature will do anything at all about regulating the out-of-control online charter sector. Here are some of the issues, according to Plain Dealer education reporter, Patrick O’Donnell, who explained last week that, “ECOT, Ohio’s largest online school, has lost a court appeal that would have blocked the state from trying to ‘claw back’ as much as $65 million the school received last year…”  ECOT—which hasn’t been keeping accurate log-in attendance records, and which has claimed that the state requires it merely to provide 920 hours of instruction for the 15,000 students the school claims it educates but not to require its students to actively use the materials for at least 20 hours per week—took the state to court earlier this year to try to block the state’s crackdown on its massive reimbursement for phantom students. ECOT has lost in court at every turn as it has appealed its case, but the school’s leaders are shameless in demanding that the state continue paying the school for the students it claims, without proper records, are enrolled.  Its total tax-dollar reimbursement is currently over $100 million, but the state wants ECOT to return over $60 million.

O’Donnell reports that now in the legislature’s lame duck session, “The schools are asking state legislators to add a ‘hold harmless’ provision to another bill in the next few weeks to stop the state from using attendance reviews of the schools to take millions of dollars of state funding away from them.”  O’Donnell describes the pressure being brought on ECOT’s behalf by Neil Clark, Ohio’s most powerful Republican lobbyist, who represents ECOT and who alleges that “the Ohio Department of Education ‘created new rules for e-schools and then applied the new rules retroactively.'”

Last March, Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni of Youngstown introduced a bill to try to establish oversight of charter school enrollment.  In a press release he declared: “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.” Schiavoni’s bill would have required e-schools to keep accurate records of the number of hours student spend doing coursework. It would have required the online school to notify the Ohio Department of Education if a student failed to log-in for ten consecutive days.  It would have required that a qualified teacher check in with each student once a month to monitor active participation.

There was always a very dim hope that wisdom and the relentless exposure by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Columbus Dispatch and the Akron Beacon-Journal might have pressured Ohio’s lame duck legislature to consider Schiavoni’s bill, but it was sidetracked last summer to the Senate Finance Committee by the Senate leadership in an attempt to get around a sympathetic Peggy Lehner, chair of the Senate Education Committee. In Ohio’s supermajority Republican legislature, Senator Schiavoi’s sensible bill will die at the end of the legislative session.

Now as December begins, with only a couple of weeks left in the lame duck session, ECOT and its fellow online schools are begging to avoid the threatened claw-back of their funding for this year, because they say they were not properly warned of the new regulations that kicked in last winter.  After all, the problem is more widespread than ECOT. O’Donnell reports: “The state also ordered Provost Academy in Columbus to repay $800,000 after finding that it had the equivalent of just 3 full-time students, not the 160 it had claimed. And it found that Akron Digital Academy could not document 80% of its students and that the Buckeye Online School for Success could not document any of its 900 students.”

Jim Siegel of the Columbus Dispatch reports that as the e-schools are trying to pressure legislators to save their funding, ECOT’s hearing before the Ohio Department of Education—the one the school has attempted repeatedly to block in court—began yesterday.  The department is meeting with representatives of the online schools as they continue trying to appeal the department’s ruling earlier this year.

Like O’Donnell, Siegel has wondered whether ECOT’s demand for a one-year hold harmless might be added as an amendment to another bill—perhaps to the already highly amended omnibus Senate Bill 3.  When he posed the question to Republican leaders in the House, “(B)oth (Andrew) Brenner, (chair of the House Education Committee) and Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, R-Clarksville, said they do not expect to add proposals that have not already been heard in committee as separate bills. Asked specifically about help for e-schools, Rosenberger said, ‘We’re not going to be seeing anything like that.'”

Siegel believes, however, that Andrew Brenner will still try to figure out how to waive this year’s claw-back of taxpayer funds from the e-schools. Andrew Brenner is a “nonvoting member of the state Board of Education,”  who has told Siegel: “I’m going to be talking to the board president and a couple of others to see what we can do to at least get us through this last school year, and then maybe we can have a permanent fix going forward… Brenner said his key concern is that even if the state Department of Education is legally authorized to ask online schools to provide more detailed login durations to justify enrollment figures, state officials should not have implemented the policy in the middle of the school year… It would have been more reasonable, Brenner said, for the department to warn schools this year, and then start docking their funds next year if enrollment could not be verified by login durations.”

Notice that Brenner’s focus is protecting the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. Remember that legislators have have been encouraged to consider ECOT’s well-being through political contributions from ECOT’s operator William Lager. As columnist Brent Larkin declares in the December 4, Plain Dealer: “Ohio is saddled with a damaging reputation as home to some of the nation’s worst charter schools. Worse yet, none of this seems to bother the state’s legislative leaders, whose breathtaking incompetence and corruption prevent them from angering their campaign contributors by making the tough decisions needed to improve the state’s educational standing.”

Brenner doesn’t seem to care that funding for Ohio’s massive unregulated online charter school scam is being sucked out of the state’s education budget and that Ohio’s way of funding charter schools even steals back money from local school districts’ levy funds.

This blog has covered the long-running scandal of Ohio’s failure to regulate ECOT here.

Ohio Judge Denies ECOT an Injunction to Prevent State’s Search for Phantom Students

On Friday afternoon, Ohio was granted the possibility that perhaps someday it can recover some of the hundreds of millions of dollars in years’ of over-payments to the notorious Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT). The Ohio Department of Education won a preliminary court victory on Friday, but in the context of state politics, for-profit educational management organizations, and huge political donations from wealthy charter school operators, regulation of charter schools remains a distant possibility in Ohio and in many other states.  However, thanks to Jenifer French, a judge in Franklin County Common Pleas Court, there is at least now a chance here in Ohio. ECOT has been in court trying to get a temporary injunction to prevent the state’s crackdown on what are ECOT’s obviously inflated claims about the number of students the state should be paying for.

Patrick O’Donnell, the Plain Dealer’s education reporter, explains the significance of Judge French’s decision: “Ohio can try to make the state’s largest online school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, return money to the state for having no proof of how much time students spent learning, Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Jenifer French ruled Friday. French denied a request from the school for a preliminary injunction to stop the state from attempting to recover some of the $106 million the school was paid for the 2015-2016 school year. But ECOT can still try to block that process in a hearing before the state school board and through a larger, ongoing court fight.” ECOT has already announced that it will appeal Judge French’s decision all the way to the state’s supreme court if necessary.

Judge French demonstrated on Friday, however, that she at least does not accept ECOT’s argument that the school deserves to have collected an annual fee of $6,900 per student in tax dollars even if students have been logging on for only an hour per day.  The e-school argued in court that the school should be required to document only that students are offered 920 hours of online curriculum each year, not that the students are actually using the curriculum. O’Donnell quotes Judge French’s response to that argument: “There is a public interest in ensuring that our children are receiving the education that our taxpayers are funding… This may be occurring at ECOT and other e-schools, but ODE (the Ohio Department of Education) has no way of knowing whether it is occurring because there are no records being maintained to ensure that it is.”

The school’s operators also argued in court that when new regulations were put in place last winter, the state somehow shifted the rules without enough warning. O’Donnell describes French’s response: “French rejected that argument, noting that the state has told online schools for years that how long its students spend online would be part of any attendance and payment review.”

ECOT also defended itself by presenting a 2003 funding agreement signed by an official at the Ohio Department of Education—a 2003 agreement that required the school merely to provide the curriculum. Officials who worked at ODE in 2003 explained to the court that the agreement came very early in the evolution of charter schools in Ohio and is no longer valid.  In her decision, Judge French’s declares that the 2003 agreement is surely invalid: “‘The Court finds that interpreting the Funding Agreement in the manner ECOT suggests, and enforcing an outdated 2003 agreement would be in violation of public policy” and would “require the state to continue paying hundreds of millions of dollars per year, without any ability to determine whether students are in fact participating in any curriculum at ECOT at all.”

Since early last week, when the Ohio Department of Education released the results of a new attendance audit of ECOT, Ohioans had been anxiously awaiting Judge French’s decision.  ODE conducted the audit over the summer with a sample of ECOT’s supposed students.  Early last week O’Donnell described ODE’s new findings: “ECOT was paid about $106 million in state funding last year for a reported 15,322 full-time students. But after a preliminary attendance review in March and a final review in August that required the school to verify its enrollment through student log-in durations, the department has concluded that ECOT’s actual verified enrollment is 6,313 students.  Based on the final determination, the department could try to force ECOT and its politically influential founder, Bill Lager, to repay about $60 million to the state.”  And potentially much more if there is a retroactive claw-back for over-payments in previous years.

After Judge French’s decision, the Columbus Dispatch optimistically editorialized: “If ECOT, which has vowed to appeal, loses the fight, taxpayers stand to recoup $60 million of the $106 million paid to the school last year.”  Time will tell, however, whether Ohio can succeed in cracking down on charter school fraud. As ECOT’s appeal moves through the court system, we’ll see if William Lager is powerful enough to protect ECOT and continue cheating taxpayers.  Because of the complicated way Ohio calculates and routes funding for charter schools, a significant part of the dollars being diverted to ECOT are coming not just from the state but also from local school levy dollars.  Neither the state nor local school districts can afford to be losing the tens of millions of dollars being paid to ECOT as tuition for phantom students.