ECOT Scandal Simmers Along as Ohio Election Issue this November

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Now an Ohio Election Issue: Who Allowed ECOT to Scam Ohio Taxpayers for 17 Years?

The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) has been shut down, but fortunately in this election season there may be more accountability than anybody who has been watching this long, long story unfold might have expected.  In a new investigation, Columbus Dispatch reporter Jim Siegel revisits the ECOT saga and then looks at the role of four Ohio politicians, all Republicans, who are running for state office again in November: Jon Husted, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor; Keith Faber, the Republican candidate for state auditor; Mike DeWine, the Republican candidate for governor; and Dave Yost, the Republican candidate for attorney general.  Siegel begins: “About $200 million was paid to two private companies owned by school founder Bill Lager, who also made $2.5 million in political donations—92 percent of it to Republicans.”

Ohio Secretary of State, Jon Husted, is currently the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor. According to Siegel, he has been around Ohio politics through much of ECOT’s history, though he has done little to impose meaningful regulation. Siegel reminds us that, in 2000, soon after Bill Lager set up ECOT—a scheme he devised to overcome personal bankruptcy—several of the school’s appointed board members quit with complaints that the school was poorly managed and its agreement with Lager’s for-profit Altair Management was problematic. Kim Hardy, who partnered with Lager to found ECOT, disassociated himself from the school and urged members of the Ohio Legislature to examine problems with legislative oversight.  Jon Husted was elected to the Ohio House in 2001.  In 2002, then-State Auditor Jim Petro, discovered that the state had overpaid ECOT $1.7 million for students whose attendance could not be verified.  Husted helped rewrite Ohio’s charter school law in 2002, but, explains Siegel: “(The law) made a number of changes but did little to impact ECOT’s operation, despite that the Ohio Department of Education had requested improved regulation of online charter schools.” Husted also opposed proposed legislation to require teachers at online schools to meet in person with their students. In 2005, the year he became Speaker of the Ohio House, Husted was instrumental in closing the Legislative Office of Education Oversight: “The move came not long after its study of online school spending.”  Siegel adds that like many other Ohio politicians, Husted spoke at an ECOT graduation. It has become commonplace for Ohio politicians to shed any ECOT contributions by donating the money to charity.  Husted received $36,000 in contributions over the years from ECOT, which his campaign committee has not donated to other causes.

Keith Faber, currently a state representative and the Republican candidate for state auditor, was the Ohio Senate President for two terms—from January of 2013 through December of 2016.  Faber has served in the legislature, according to Siegel, for 15 years. Siegel quotes Faber from an interview with the Dispatch: “I was a big supporter of ECOT and I was a big supporter of school choice… The details of how ECOT was run were not something that came before us in the legislature… until we found out there were questions to be asked.”  It is interesting how long it took Faber to notice that questions were being asked.  Siegel explains: “The Dispatch reported in 2006 that ECOT was claiming 100 percent attendance despite expelling 1,946 students for chronic truancy.” Siegel also reminds readers that in 2015, Democratic Senator Joe Schiavoni sponsored a bill outlining a procedure by which ECOT and other online charter schools would be required carefully to track and report computer log-ins by their students.  However, Senate President Keith Faber killed the bill by assigning it to the Finance Committee which never scheduled a hearing, instead of assigning it to the Education Committee, where a more sympathetic chair might have moved the bill forward for consideration.  Siegel quotes Faber bragging in 2018 that once the legislature did learn about problems at ECOT—several years after everybody else realized there were problems—a 2016 charter school law passed during his tenure as senate president became instrumental: “Thanks to the strong charter school reforms put in place while I was Senate president, and the diligent work of Auditor Yost and his staff, ECOT was caught and is out of business.” Faber took $36,500 in ECOT political contributions, reports Siegel, but Faber has donated the money to charity.

Mike DeWine, currently Ohio Attorney General, and the Republican candidate for governor, has made his efforts to crack down on ECOT a central part of his campaign to be Ohio’s next governor. Siegel quotes a DeWine spokesperson telling a West Virginia newspaper that, because DeWine hired the special counsel to represent the state against ECOT’s lawsuit trying to block the state from demanding log-in data, “Mike DeWine is the only elected official who has made real progress in this case.” Siegel, however, reminds readers: “To be clear, as attorney general, DeWine is required to provide representation for the Department of Education.”  Siegel does give Mike DeWine credit for hiring a skilled litigator for this position.  Now that DeWine is actively running for governor and now that ECOT is in bankruptcy, Attorney General DeWine is taking credit for suing Bill Lager and his companies to try to recover as much as possible of the over $60 million the state calculates ECOT still owes in tax dollars overpaid by the state to the school for students who were not actively in school. Siegel reports that many who know the issues believe that as Attorney General, DeWine might have filed his lawsuits years earlier.  DeWine has donated to charity $12,533 in political contributions he received from Bill Lager.

Dave Yost, currently Ohio State Auditor and the Republican candidate for attorney general, has, in the past year-and-a-half, very actively pursued efforts to stop Bill Lager’s theft of Ohio tax dollars. Siegel reports that Yost issued a cease-and-desist letter to stop ECOT from using tax dollars for television ads attacking the Ohio Department of Education; issued a finding for recovery when Yost learned that Lager had used tax dollars to pay his daughter’s media production company to create the ads; released a full audit that accused the online school of filing padded attendance figures to the Department of Education in order to inflate the state’s per-pupil payments to the school; and referred ECOT’s faulty attendance reporting to the U.S attorney’s office and the Franklin County prosecutor for possible criminal charges. However, Siegel adds: “But Yost also audited ECOT’s financial records each year since taking office in 2011 and gave the school awards for clean financial records, most recently in January 2016.” Siegel explains further: “In 2014, Yost’s office investigated ECOT after the school’s director of social services alleged that school officials were cooking the attendance books, removing students before state testing cycles and forging signatures to bolster enrollment.  Yost did not conduct a formal audit, but instead did an ‘agreed upon procedures engagement,’ where his office and ECOT officials agreed on how to limit the scope of the probe.”  Siegel reports that Yost spoke at ECOT commencement ceremonies in 2013, 2014, and 2015 and that he accepted campaign contributions of $29,000, which has has now donated to charity.

The headline on Jim Siegel’s story is, “Which Side is Right in Political Battle Over ECOT Blame?”  Siegel doesn’t draw any definitive conclusion at the end of his in depth report. He leaves it up to the reader to examine the history and the facts.

In his Sunday column on August 26, however, the retired editorial page director of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Brent Larkin draws what ought to be the inevitable conclusion: “Over a 17-year period, state officials reached into your pockets, removed $1 billion, and allowed much of it to be poured down a rat hole formerly known as the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. Consider it another way.  While state officials were underfunding local school districts, they were sending upwards of $100 million a year to a charter school that will be forever remembered as an epic failure. As a result, mothers and fathers across Ohio had to raise their own property taxes to provide children they love with an adequate education. Nothing about what happened is forgivable. Nevertheless, as of this writing, here’s the ECOT report card:  Number of people sent to prison: Zero.  Number charged with a crime: Zero.  If a price is ever to be paid for the biggest scandal in Ohio history, it will happen November 6, when voters elect an entirely new lineup of state officeholders.”

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.”