ECOT Appeals to OH Supreme Court after Trial Court, Appeals Court and OH Dept. of Ed. Reject Excuses

The serialized saga of the years-long theft of tax dollars by Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) has been exciting. It seems, however, that the story may be ending. And while Ohio’s out-of-control charter sector rip-off will continue, in the specific story of ECOT, at least, it appears there is hope that the good will win out.

All the signs point to a fall for the notorious Bill Lager, the founder of ECOT and the guy whose private management and curriculum companies have amassed a profit of $200 million over the years. Although it seems the end is near, the state and a lot of local school districts are still owed $60 million in funds over-paid to ECOT for the 2015-2016 school year alone. And the Columbus Dispatch reports that the Ohio Department of Education has not released results of a new attendance audit for the 2016-2017 school year. Assuming the state can claw back what ECOT owes, the remaining question is whether local school districts will be able to recoup what they have paid, or whether the state will keep the money.

Here is a plot summary, according to the editorial board of the Akron Beacon Journal: “So far, a Franklin County trial court, the Education Department, a separate hearing officer and now the appeals court have rejected the ECOT case. Next, the school heads to the Ohio Supreme Court, where it has already asked the justices to block the state from retrieving that $60 million.” “ECOT argues that state law requires the school to provide the mere opportunity for a minimum 920 hours of learning per year. The appeals court found the obligation is much greater. It reminded that though enrollment is key, student participation drives the level of public money the school receives. Thus, education officials rightly requested log-on and log-off data showing when students engaged in learning online. If the state failed for years to enforce the necessary standard, that doesn’t mean it must hold to a neglectful course.”

In mid-June, the Ohio State Board of Education voted almost unanimously to require ECOT to re-pay the state $60 million dollars the school had charged the state for the phantom students it said were enrolled but whose participation could never be documented. The State Board voted to accept the ruling of a hearing officer from the Ohio Department of education, who is reported by the Columbus Dispatch to have declared that no school’s intent is to “teach to what could be the equivalent of an empty classroom.”

Then on June 29, after the appeals court ruled against ECOT’s claim that the state has been treating the school unfairly, ECOT filed an immediate appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court. Here is the Columbus Dispatch: “The appeal filed Thursday questions whether a state ‘by bureaucratic fiat, may take unilateral action that has the effect of destroying an entire system of schools of last resort for thousands of Ohio students—a system expressly established by the General Assembly.'”  Alan Johnson, the Dispatch reporter, reminds readers, however: “So far, the charter school giant has not won any legal challenges filed against a state hearing officer, the State Board of Education, and courts at two different levels.”

As this saga winds down, ECOT has kept up the pressure. In mid-June, Bill Seitz introduced a bill into the Ohio House to allow ECOT to delay payment of the money it owes, if its appeal to block the repayment fails.  The Akron Beacon Journal Editorial Board explains: “William Lager has been generous to Republicans at the Statehouse. The founder of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow has routed hundreds of thousands of dollars to their political coffers. That is the backdrop for an expedient bill proposed last week after the giant online charter school suffered a deserved setback at the State Board of Education. The legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Bill Seitz, would permit ECOT to delay repaying the state $60 million for students whose attendance the school could not verify. The school would be required to post a 10 percent bond.  Seitz told the Columbus Dispatch he just wants to ensure due process for the school.” Seitz’s bill was never enacted, however, and it does not appear that it was secretly sneaked into the state budget, as many feared.

Finally ECOT made a couple of pleas for pity. First ECOT threatened to lay off 350 employees, a quarter of its staff if the state Supreme Court finds against the school. Its lobbyist has continued to threaten that the school will have to close and ruin the future of its students, should the state succeed.

Then right at the end of June, the school began running a TV ad in Columbus, which ECOT admitted was paid for with tax dollars. The Dispatch describes the ad, which is narrated by Lionel Morales, a 2017 ECOT graduate: “The Ohio Department of Education wants to end school choice and stop parents from deciding what’s best for their children. That’s why I and the over 36,000 students and alumni of ECOT are hoping our elected leaders fix what’s broken and save our school… Sadly, the Ohio Department of Education says many of us don’t count.”   The Dispatch article describing the ad explains: “The end of the ad is signed ‘Ohio’s children.'”

The egregious expenditure of Ohio tax dollars to run an ad that castigates the Ohio Department of Education finally motivated Ohio’s state auditor, Dave Yost, to step in.  The Dispatch reports: “Yost, who has been an ECOT supporter, spoke Thursday morning with Attorney General Mike DeWine and senior staff about going to court to stop the school from continuing a blitz of television ads paid for with taxpayer money. The ads have attacked the Department of Education and tried to put pressure on lawmakers. Yost, who sent ECOT a cease-and-desist order… said that if ECOT were allowed to continue the ads, it would signal to other state agencies that they could use taxpayer dollars on political campaigns. ‘This is a very dangerous precedent—where money can be taken by force from taxpayers to tell the legislature what to do,’ Yost said.”

Ohio State Board of Education Demands that ECOT Return $60 Million It Overcharged the State

Yesterday afternoon, members of the Ohio State Board of Education voted 16-1 to demand that the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), Ohio’s large and notorious cyber charter school, pay back $60 million it overcharged the state last year for students who were not participating full-time in its educational program. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reminds readers that ECOT has claimed an enrollment of 15,300 full-time students, while log-in data for the 2015-16 school year confirms the enrollment of only 6,300 students participating as state law requires: 5 hours-per-day (or 20 hours-per-week) (or 920 hours-per- year).

Today’s 16-1 vote margin among members of the State School Board demonstrates that opposition to ECOT’s theft of tax dollars has become bipartisan. After all, Ohio is an all-Republican state with both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion controlled by Republicans. The State Board of Education—part-appointed and part-elected—is also dominated by Republicans.

ECOT has taken the state to court to try to block the state’s claw-back of $60 million paid to the school last year for phantom students. O’Donnell fills in the legal background. Last September, Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Jenifer French upheld the Ohio Department of Education’s finding that many students have been logging in only about an hour per day. ECOT appealed Judge French’s decision, and it is expected that the Franklin County Court of Appeals will rule on ECOT’s appeal later this summer. To block yesterday’s vote by the State School Board to uphold the findings of a hearing officer at the Ohio Department of Education, however, ECOT had filed an emergency injunction in the Franklin County Court of Appeals. Last Wednesday, however, ECOT lost its bid to prevent yesterday’s vote.

Catherine Candisky of the Columbus Dispatch quotes Neil Clark, ECOT’s lobbyist, responding to yesterday’s overwhelming vote against ECOT by the State School Board’: “Any order (to repay the money) is irresponsible, premature, and vindictive until the court appeals are exhausted.” Unfortunately the matter will not be resolved quickly.  Clark declared that the school—founded by William Lager, a major Ohio Republican political donor, and operated by Lager-owned privately held management companies—will appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Candisky describes ECOT’s plea for mercy after yesterday’s overwhelming vote to demand the $60 million repayment to the state: “The decision, ECOT officials say, is a death blow to the school; they claim it will have to close if forced to repay the money.”

The ECOT scandal has been long running. (See this blog’s coverage here.)  Karen Kasler commented late yesterday for the Statehouse News Bureau: “Simply put, ECOT is paid by the state for the number of full time students enrolled, as all traditional and charter schools are. And a 165-page report from an Ohio Department of Education hearing officer determined ECOT counted 9,000 more full time students than it actually had last year, inflating its full time enrollment by 60% to receive $108 million in state funding.”  Kasler also comments on Rep. Andrew Brenner, chair of the House Education Committee and a non-voting member of the State Board, who was present at yesterday’s meeting: “He’s also a supporter of ECOT. And though the battle between ECOT and the Department of Education has been going on for a year, Brenner said he thinks the board could have held off on its vote to allow time to look for more data to show what’s happening at the online school.”

The press has doggedly kept up the pressure on the legislature, the Department of Education, and the State Board of Education to stop the ECOT scandal.  Here is the most recent example, an editorial from yesterday morning’s Akron Beacon Journal warning members of the State Board of Education about what would be at stake in their vote yesterday afternoon: “The State Board of Education meets today, and the members have an opportunity to strike a blow for accountability and quality in the funding of public schools. A month ago, a state hearing officer ruled that the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow failed to justify roughly 60 percent of its enrollment.  Now is the moment for the board to order that the online school pay back the money it claimed under false pretenses… The on-line school has been nothing if not brazen. It has argued for months, through its lobbyists and in court, that it does not have an obligation to ensure that students actually participate in learning… The State Board of Education has good reason to accept the findings and recommendation of the hearing officer. Collecting the money the state overpaid isn’t about shutting down ECOT. It’s about accountability and quality, ensuring that public dollars serve the intended purpose.”

School Choice via Charter Schools: Individualism vs. the Common Good

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Education announced new grants of $245 million (a quarter of a billion dollars) under its Charter Schools Program (CSP), for the creation and expansion of charter schools. The federal government awards these grants to what are known as SEAs —state educational agencies or, in common parlance, state departments of education—and to charter management organizations—the big chains of charter schools, many of them for-profit. But while the U.S. Department of Education continues to operate the Charter Schools Program as though nothing has changed, there is a whirlwind of controversy these days about the impact of charter schools.

In Ohio, everybody is waiting to see what Franklin County Common Please Court Judge Jenifer French will decide in the case brought by the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT)—a huge online school being investigated by the Ohio Department of Education for collecting hundreds millions of tax dollars over the years for phantom students—students who sign up for ECOT but log-in for only about an hour every day, when the state requires five hours of active participation.  Why has ECOT sued for a preliminary injunction to block the state’s demand for records of students’ computer log-in times?  Because ECOT has not bothered to set up a comprehensive system for collecting this seemingly important information.  On Monday of this week, the Ohio Department of Education reported on an audit it has conducted with a sample of ECOT’s supposed students. Patrick O’Donnell of the Plain Dealer reports: “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.  Much hangs on Judge Jenifer French’s decision in what is rapidly becoming an outrageous scandal.

Then on Thursday, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post published the second installment of Carol Burris’s blockbuster report for the Network for Public Education on financial and academic abuses in California’s charter schools. California serves more students in charter schools than any other state, and the problems described by Burris astonish.  She describes Desert Sands Charter High School with 2,000 students, a four-year graduation rate of 11.5 percent and a dropout rate of 42 percent: “Desert Sands Charter High School enrolls nearly 2,000 students; almost all are Latino. It is part of the Antelope Valley School District, but you will not find it listed on Antelope’s website. Nor will you find Desert Sands at the Lancaster, Calif., address given on its own website.”  Burris describes a Desert Sands Charter School student whose “classroom was located in an office building across from a Walmart nearly 100 miles away from both Antelope Valley Schools and the Desert Sands’ address. Desert Sands is one of 15 independent learning center charter schools, which are defined as non-classroom-based independent study sites, connected to Learn4Life, a network of schools that claim to provide personalized learning.”  Former students “found their experience at the charter to be anything but ‘personalized.’  They described education at Dessert Sands as no more than a continuous cycle of paper packets, optional tutor appointments and tests that students continue to take until they pass. Three calls to three different Learn4Life charter schools confirmed that the instructional program was driven by paper packets that students pick up and complete. After packet completion, students take a test to earn credit… The schools are in reality a web of resource centers sprinkled in office buildings, strip malls and even former liquor stores.”  Burris, the Executive Director of the Network for Public Education and a retired, award-winning high school principal, knows what she is looking at when she evaluates a school. I urge you to read this week’s stunning critique, to go back and read her first post, and to anticipate upcoming releases.

Finally this week, In the Public Interest published a new report, How Privatization Increases Inequality and reached the very same conclusion about charter schools as Massachusetts U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who clarified her position in opposition to Massachusetts Question 2, a constitutional amendment that, if passed, would raise the state’s cap on the number of new charter schools that can be started up each year. In the Public Interest emphasizes two negatives as charter schools proliferate: they increase economic and racial segregation, and they drain money from the public schools that serve the majority of students and concentrations of children with special needs: “The introduction of private interests into public goods and services can radically impact access for certain groups.  In some cases, privatization can create parallel systems in which one system propped up by private interests typically serves higher income people while another lesser quality system serves lower income people. In other cases, the creation of a private system siphons funding away from the public system meant to serve everyone. In some situations, poor individuals and families can lose access to a public good completely… The rapid growth of charter schools in the landscape of public K-12 education has ignited many concerns, including their financial impacts on public school districts, the ability of state and local governments to hold charter schools accountable, and whether they provide a quality education to students. However, another related and serious concern is the evidence showing that charter schools create and perpetuate racial and socioeconomic isolation and segregation among students.”

Jeff Bryant, in his weekly commentary for the Education Opportunity Network, quotes Senator Elizabeth Warren as she rejects Massachusetts Question 2 for the very same reasons: “I’m just concerned about the proposal and what it means for the children all across the Commonwealth… Public officials have a responsibility not just to a small subset of children but to all of the children, to make sure that they receive a first-rate education.”

Warren echoes the ethical concern formulated by the Rev. Jesse Jackson at a Washington, D.C. town hall in 2011: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run. But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.” There should be no losers built into the system: Jackson points to public education as the very definition of public responsibility for “lifting” all children—not just the children we might consider the winners and not merely the children whose parents know how to play the school choice game well enough to make their own children the winners.  As money is sucked out of large public districts in Chicago and Detroit and Los Angeles and Cleveland to serve the relatively few children who can “choose” their way into a charter school, more and more people are considering the very premise of school choice in the context of their most basic values: support for the common good vs. endorsement of the pursuit of self-serving individualism.

Ohio Pays Millions While Students at ECOT Average Only an Hour a Day at Online School

Jim Siegel reported yesterday for the Columbus Dispatch that despite Judge Stephen McIntosh’s refusal to grant the restraining order demanded by the state’s largest online charter school to prevent a state audit of its attendance records, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) continues to refuse to share its records openly with the state’s investigators:

“Despite a judge’s ruling this week, the state’s largest online charter school has apparently declined to hand over all records requested by the Ohio Department of Education so it can conduct an attendance audit.  After a Franklin County judge on Monday denied ECOT’s request for a temporary restraining order to block the state from conducting the audit, state investigators moved into the school’s Columbus headquarters to begin reviewing data. But, according to an e-mail sent Tuesday from the Education Department’s attorney to ECOT’s legal counsel, the information ECOT provided was not complete…. The standoff is the latest development in an ongoing battle between the Education Department and the politically well-connected online school….”

Patrick O’Donnell, the Plain Dealer‘s education reporter shares some of the back story about Ohio’s push to audit attendance at the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, which collected over $100 million last year to educate 15,000 students online. Apparently an initial audit of school attendance records earlier in the spring turned up some shocking news: “An initial review this spring raised red flags that students at ECOT, Ohio’s largest online school, may have done far less work than required.” “‘Those (ECOT’s) records did not substantiate the number of educational hours for which ECOT had billed ODE,’ the state’s lawyers added.”

O’Donnell continues: “Many students at the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) online charter school spend just an hour a day online taking their classes… all the while the state pays the school as if they were full-time students.  That detail was included in a filing for the state in Franklin County Common Pleas Court Monday as the Ohio Department of Education audits the giant charter school’s records.” “Unlike a traditional school, where teachers can take attendance every day, students at online schools like ECOT take classes at home by computer.  That makes it hard to measure whether they are actively taking classes…. Since charter schools are paid on a per-student basis by the state, there are millions of dollars at stake in determining which kids qualify as attending a school.”

The problem is that ECOT inadequately tracks active participation by its students.  Siegel quotes the spring’s initial audit: “The department ‘tentatively concluded that it appeared that ECOT tracks student participation time, but that ECOT does not adjust its (full-time student) FTE submission according to this participation data,’ the department wrote in a court filing. After unsuccessfully gaining access to ECOT’s full log-in data, (attorney Douglas) Cole wrote that as of Feb. 1 the law requires each online charter to ‘keep an accurate record of each individual student’s participation in learning opportunities each day’ and be kept in a manner that can be submitted to the state.  Cole said the Education Department maintains that, even before that law change, ECOT had an obligation to maintain accurate duration records.”

It is well known that William Lager, ECOT’s founder and the owner of the two privately held for-profit companies that provide all services for ECOT, has been among Ohio’s most generous contributors to the political coffers of Republicans in the legislature. In its latest report, the Dispatch notes that Lager “has given more than $1.2 million in disclosed campaign contributions, the vast majority to Republican lawmakers.”

This week, Lager’s best supporter in the legislature seems to be Rep. Kirk Schuring, R-Canton, who asked the Department of Education to delay its audit for a week.  In his report for the Dispatch, Siegel explains why Schuring says he wanted a delay: “I told them I was disappointed they wouldn’t delay just one week to allow me to at least see if there was a way to come to come kind of reasonable agreement.” The Dispatch continues: “Schuring said he wants a better understanding of the differences in learning between an online school and a traditional school.”

In March, Senate minority leader, Joe Schiavoni, D-Youngstown, proposed a bill to regulate attendance at the online schools, but the legislature did not act on it before recessing until after the November election.  Rep. Schuring is reported by Siegel to be “uncertain if lawmakers will act after the November election.”

This blog has covered ECOT extensively.