National School Choice Week: A Time to Examine How the Lessons of ECOT’s Demise Apply Beyond Ohio

During this National School Choice Week, a celebration of school privatization that is being financially and ideologically promoted by people like Jeb Bush and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, it is a good time to consider the lessons we have been learning about the impact of parental choice and what is virtually always at the center of school choice: privatization of education at public expense.

One obvious and little noticed problem for those who seek to bring the problems of school choice to the public’s attention is that the laws which established charter schools and govern their operation are state-specific.  When an unscrupulous charter school, or even a big chain of charters goes down in another state, it is easy to think, “This isn’t relevant to me,” and maybe skip reading the story.  Even if the Network for Public Education (NPE) releases a high quality, incisive a report on a selection of charter schools across the country, it is tempting to look for a chapter about a school in one’s own state and skip the report’s first four chapters about California. One can turn away, thinking, “I can’t do anything about this other state’s mess anyway.”

But if you read NPE’s big report, you’ll notice that charter school problems across the states have some things in common. Coincidentally and ironically, this National School Choice Week is happening only days after the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, one of the nation’s largest cyber charter schools, was finally put out of business  by Ohio state officials and its sponsoring organization.  ECOT’s demise last Thursday is a good opportunity to reflect on the broader lessons can be learned about school privatization.  ECOT’s seventeen year longevity, despite a history of controversy, is a lesson about outrageous lack of regulation of a privately operated education sector that relies on public tax dollars—public tax dollars that, even when the school is not-for-profit, too frequently flow to for-profit management contractors who use the money to pay state legislators and regulators to look the other way.

In Sunday’s Columbus Dispatch, Bill Bush quotes Bill Phillis, long ago an assistant superintendent of public instruction in Ohio and now executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding: “How blind can the state be? It was as if a bear was at the door, but they didn’t look out the window.” Phillis speculates, according to Bush’s report, that ECOT has “over billed the state by more than a half-billion dollars over its lifetime, while its founder, William Lager, showered politicians with campaign cash.”

Bush reviews ECOT’s early history: “ECOT opened in September 2000, and three months later, its first superintendent Coletta Musick, was ousted.  The Dispatch reported that the dispute supposedly centered on ECOT’s attendance claims, but Musick couldn’t discuss it because ECOT had paid her $124,233 in tax money to sign a nondisclosure agreement… Shortly after Musick left, three of ECOT’s five school board members, handpicked by Lager, also resigned.  Then-state Auditor Jim Petro issued an attendance audit in 2001 covering ECOT’s first year: The school initially claimed to have 2,270 students, but records showed only seven logged on to any of the school’s computer systems. Yet the school had still received full funding for all the students. ECOT was ordered to repay $1.6 million but was allowed to work off the debt.”

After the legislature strengthened Ohio’s charter school law a bit in 2015, the state could claim the right to demand computer log-in data before reimbursing ECOT for its students’ per-pupil state aid. ECOT, however went to court to protect its right, under a 2003 agreement, not to present log-in records to the state.  ECOT has had the state in court all year to prevent the state’s claw-back of $80 million for just two school years—2015-16 and 2016-17.  Until  ECOT’s sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West cracked down last week based on the school’s pending bankruptcy, the state has been unable to recapture the money.  The Ohio Supreme Court remains scheduled to hear the school’s final appeal in oral arguments on February 13.

Last summer, the Dispatch‘s Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel were the first to break the story about ECOT’s early history.  The reporters interviewed a disgruntled former-ECOT-employee, Chandra Filichia, employed by Lager as an ECOT registrar for several years, but now back full time as a waitress at the Columbus Waffle House where she met Bill Lager in 2000. Then bankrupt, Lager met with friends over coffee as they tried to come up with a new business venture.  Lager and his ECOT co-founder Kim Hardy mapped out their business plan on paper napkins.  Finally, “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.”

In a new and detailed expose for Mother Jones, James Pogue revisits this early story, adding details and photographs to depict the online charter school’s humble beginning as a budding business venture.  Pogue re-interviews Chandra Filichia, the waitress later hired by Lager to recruit students for ECOT, about her disillusionment with the quality of ECOT’s academic program: “As a registrar, she described herself as being in a position to see the school’s attendance problems.  She said kids who hadn’t logged on in for weeks would call, after being threatened with truancy proceedings, begging for her help.”

Pogue  quotes Jeffrey Forster, a former superintendent at the school, responding to an inquiry from an Ohio Department of Education’s attorney about the process ECOT used to verify its student enrollment: “Forster recalled as an example how one day in 2009, ECOT gathered its teachers in a Columbus-area Doubletree hotel, and over the course of 10 hours had them verify attendance for as many as 14,000 students. They passed the forms around a string of lined-up tables and worked from memory as much as from login or attendance records… If no one recalled a student, the teachers—each of whom could have had dozens of pupils, sometimes many more—would look on their rosters to see if they could find a name.  Many of the students presumably had done their schoolwork in good faith, and if a student had definitively dropped out the teachers would decline to sign.  But the verifications seem to have had nothing to do with how much time the student actually spent doing classwork.”

Pogue also quotes Keith Richards, who as Newark, Ohio’s public school superintendent in 2006, wrote a formal letter of complaint to ECOT’s sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West.  Superintendent Richards also forwarded his complaint to State Auditor Petro: “Of the 12 former Newark students who have attended ECOT this year, we have found many violations… with regard to enrollment, attendance, instruction time and activity and withdrawal procedures.” Superintendent Richards continued, “We have documentation that shows that four ECOT students… do not have a computer or even in some cases, internet access in their homes.  We know of one student who was enrolled in ECOT for two years… and who was never given a computer or ECOT coursework.”

On Sunday, the first day of this year’s National School Choice Week, the Columbus Dispatch editorialized: “Ohio’s charter-school laws were from the start, exceedingly friendly to big campaign donors who would go on to use them to make a buck. Numerous attempts over the years to reform the laws and strengthen oversight have been stymied by the charter-school lobby and legislators friendly to it.”

As a way of marking National School Choice Week this year, please read Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel’s July 30, 2017 expose on ECOT ,  James Pogue’s report at Mother Jones: The GOP’s Biggest Charter School Experiment Just Imploded, and the Network for Public Education’s recent report, Charters and Consequences.

Then consider, as a contrast, our nation’s system of public schools, regulated by law and the democratic process to protect the rights of their students and protect the public’s investment. Privatization of education is not inevitable.  School choice responds to power and privilege.  Maybe it is time to consider the best way to protect the public good by strengthening the public investment in well regulated public schools—and distributing tax dollars more generously to the schools in poor communities whose needs are great and whose funding remains meager.

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Betsy DeVos: The First of Her Two Top Accomplishments This Year

Bill Phillis, executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, has been circulating a New Year’s resolution and asking people endorse it and send it on to their legislators and anyone who has a role in making education policy. The resolution was written by Wayne Wlodarski at the Ohio Education Association, who adapted it from a statement of the Network for Public Education  (See pp. 47-48 of the NPE Report)

I BELIEVE that public education is the pillar of our democracy. I believe in the common school envisioned by Horace Mann. A common school is a public institution, which nurtures and teaches all who live within its boundaries, regardless of race, ethnicity, creed, sexual orientation or learning ability. All may enroll – regardless of when they seek to enter the school or where they were educated before.

I BELIEVE that taxpayers bear the responsibility for funding those schools and that funding should be ample and equitable to address the needs of the served community. I also believe that taxpayers have the right to examine how schools use tax dollars to educate children.

I BELIEVE that such schools should be accountable to the community they serve, and that community residents have the right and responsibility to elect those who govern the school. Citizens also have the right to insist that schooling be done in a manner that best serves the needs of all children.

In so stating these beliefs, I will do whatever I can to support and promote public education in Ohio.

What seems amazing to me about the project of asking people to endorse and send this resolution to policy makers is that, as we begin 2018, it seems so urgently necessary. When my own children were in elementary school in the late 1980s—a time when I was working hard to help pass school levies in my community and when I first met Bill Phillis, who was then assistant superintendent of public instruction here in Ohio—such a resolution would have seemed more than a little strange. At that time most people merely assumed that one sent one’s children to the public elementary to which they were assigned and the designated middle school and high school.  As a parent in the 1980s and early 1990s, I did not fully appreciate the right to public education; I merely took it for granted.

Betsy DeVos, who has been the U.S. Secretary of Education for a year, did not invent school choice, and certainly school privatization had been underway through vouchers and the proliferation of charter schools before she was appointed.  But her biggest accomplishment during this year has been to use her position to undermine confidence in and support for the public schools her federal department is supposed to oversee.

Betsy DeVos is perhaps our society’s longest and most experienced lobbyist for school choice—her life’s cause and the object of her lavish philanthropy that has supported organizations including the American Federation for Children, EdChoice, the Alliance for School Choice, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, National School Choice Week, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and the Great Lakes Education Project.

While Betsy DeVos has long supported the work of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which churns out model bills for school privatization, this year DeVos has not succeeded in delivering a federal school voucher program. Neither did she succeed in getting a large tuition tax credit program or education savings account program inserted, as many had feared she would, into the tax overhaul Congress passed in December. There is an expansion of what are called 529 college savings accounts on which the interest is tax-free, enabling people with such accounts to use them to pay not only for college but also for private school tuition, but this will affect only the very wealthy who can afford such accounts.

The deepest damage is what DeVos has inflicted through her relentless story about parental choice. DeVos has doggedly disparaged public schools. Ignoring that, by definition, justice must be systemic, she has attacked our education system as a bureaucracy unresponsive to parents and the needs of  “individual” (her favorite word) children.  That government’s primary role is protecting the rights of vulnerable children through laws and the enforcement of the laws through democratic governance is meaningless to DeVos.  She assumes parents will shop around until they find ideal services for each of their children; if one school doesn’t work, parents ought to merely try another one. DeVos carefully avoids acknowledging that privatized schools can find ways to select the most appealing children and push out the students they don’t want to serve. She obliviously ignores the arithmetic problems when taxes are cut and at the same time the public would find itself paying for charter schools, vouchers, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts—all out of the old but diminished public school budget.

You may not accept Betsy DeVos’s argument for the glories of school choice. But I suspect that more than last January, you just sigh. On some level haven’t we all just begun to accept that more privatization—along with the lack of protection for vulnerable students and the expense of funding several kinds of education—is just the way things are these days.

Please don’t give up. Read the principles in the resolution from the Network for Public Education via Wayne Wlodarski at the Ohio Education Association. I suspect that although your fatalism makes you fear that Betsy DeVos’s view is winning the day, you really still agree with the resolution.  Your first and most important action is to consider it and decide whether the principles remain important.  After that, send it to at least one policy maker. Take out the word ” in Ohio” at the end, and send it to Senator Patty Murray, for example, the ranking minority member of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.  She and her staff would be delighted to know that she has your support as she continues to push back against DeVos and other Republicans who relentlessly promote the nonsense of privatization.