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.)