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

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

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

Here is how the Ohio Supreme Court hearing—five months ago today—concluded, according to the Columbus Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel:  “As ECOT attorney Marion Little finished his arguments for why, under the law, the online school should get full funding for students even if they only log in once a month and do no work, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor interjected. ‘How is that not absurd?’”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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