Ohio’s Notorious E-Charters Evade Regulation: ECOT Saga Drags On and On and On

Ohio’s biggest charter school, the notorious e-school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), held a big rally in Columbus early this week. Rick Teeters, ECOT’s superintendent, told all the school’s teachers and students to show up, even though the rally happened in the middle of the school day. Maybe everybody was expected to go home afterwards and study online until midnight.

ECOT’s founder, William Lager, made an emotional speech bragging that his school has provided more choices for those who have few. Lager didn’t mention, of course, the hundreds of millions of tax dollars the school has been receiving year after year from the state on a per-student basis. Neither did he say anything about the $60 million from last year alone that the Ohio Department of Education says ECOT fraudulently charged the state for students who did not really attend school at ECOT last year. ECOT is trying to avoid paying back the money.

In Ohio, pretty much everybody knows that ECOT is a huge scam, but because Ohio is an all-Republican state without any checks and balances at all, and because William Lager keeps on contributing to the campaign coffers of members of the legislature, no strong law has been passed to stop the ripoff.  And now, in the biennial budget bill the House passed on May 2, nobody will even claim the language that mysteriously appeared to undermine oversight of Ohio’s charter school sector.

Under enormous pressure from the press last year, the legislature did tighten the regulatory process to demand that the online academies must now provide documentation that students are at their computers doing 20 hours per week of work in order to be counted.  ECOT has continued to maintain that it has, as the law has specified for years, been providing 920 hours of curriculum for its students each year. But, says ECOT, the state never asked for attendance records in the past, and the state changed its demands suddenly and illegally.

ECOT has been in court trying to block the new regulations. However a Common Pleas Court rejected ECOT’s demand that the court block the state’s effort to claw back two-thirds of what ECOT was paid last year, when ECOT was able to document the participation of only 6,300 of the 15,300 students the school claimed were enrolled. After ECOT lost its case in Common Pleas Court, ECOT appealed the case.

Working assiduously to bog down the court proceedings, ECOT demanded the removal of appeals court Judge Gary Tyack because he made the mistake of telling the truth in a comment he made about ECOT.  Here’s what Tyack said: “The General Assembly cares more about what Mr. Lager (founder of ECOT) and David Brennan (founder of other large e-schools) think than about what I think, frankly.” “It’s hard to ignore the fact that between the two of them they’ve probably gotten a billion dollars worth of State funds that would have gone to public schools because of their clout. In Russia we call them oligarchs. Here, we don’t call them anything. We call them influential donors.”  Maureen O’Connor, the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, refused this week to capitulate to ECOT’s demand that Judge Tyack be removed from the case. The case now moves forward; we must await the final decision of the Court of Appeals.

ECOT not only tried in court to block the state’s crackdown on e-school attendance reporting; it also filed an administrative appeal in the Ohio Department of Education itself. But this week ECOT lost that administrative appeal. On Wednesday, the Ohio Department of Education denied ECOT’s administrative appeal and demanded that that ECOT pay back $60 million in fees it overcharged the state last year. The decision of the Department of Education’s hearing officer is not final; the state school board  still needs to vote to seek recovery of the money. We’ll see how that goes; after all, the Ohio state board of education is dominated by a coalition of elected Republicans and members who have been appointed by Republican Governor John Kasich.

Then there are the mystery amendments that appeared in the fine print of the budget bill passed by the Ohio House on May 2.  Most of these last-minute amendments would weaken state oversight of the organizations that sponsor charter schools—sponsors who are paid by the state to provide oversight but who have no incentive to close the huge e-schools they supposedly oversee. The amendments are  pro-ECOT and anti-regulation.

Andrew Brenner, the chair of the House Education Committee, inserted a last minute amendment to change the way sponsors are rated. The state currently judges charter school sponsoring organizations by the quality of the schools they are supposed to oversee, but it weights the schools according to the number of students they serve. Here is the Akron Beacon Journal’s editorial board commenting on the change proposed by Andy Brenner to weight every school—no matter its size—equally in a sponsor’s evaluation: “For instance, ECOT has 15,000 students, or nearly one-half of those enrolled in the 59 schools sponsored by the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West. Treat the academically challenged ECOT as one school, and it would rate as a tiny fraction of its sponsor’s portfolio.  The sponsor would receive a higher rating, assuming its other schools perform well enough… In the case of ECOT…. with those numbers in mind, the re-weighting, as proposed by Andy Brenner, diminishes the commitment to students, or what charter schools claim as their first purpose. ECOT would be better off. So would the sponsor.”

Nobody knows who added other language to the House budget to protect the organizations that sponsor the huge and notorious online charter schools. Some legislators are even blaming the Legislative Service Commission, the agency that crafts the language of bills, for adding the language that favors ECOT and its sponsor. The mysterious amendment to the House budget, explains Patrick O’Donnell of the Plain Dealer, “would prevent certain ESCs that take on online charter schools from losing oversight and income from the schools, regardless of their (the schools’) ratings in the future.”

Doug Livingston of the Akron Beacon Journal provides important background about the incentive the Ohio’s legislature has provided for  years encouraging the Education Service Centers to sponsor the giant online academies: “Sponsoring large e-schools is a money-maker for educational service centers….  For each student enrolled in one of their charter schools, the sponsor gets 3 percent of the state funding that follows the students from the local school district where he or she would otherwise attend. At e-schools with more than $100 million (every year) in state revenue, the sponsor fee can be worth millions.” Now the mysterious new budget amendment further protects the Education Service Centers—letting them off the hook when the schools, which they are being paid huge sums to oversee, fail to perform.

Even the pro-charter Thomas B. Fordham Institute wants better oversight of Ohio’s e-charters and wants the mystery amendment removed from the fine print of the state budget.  Livingston quotes Chad Aldis of the Fordham Institute explaining what is wrong with the mystery amendment: “The change would allow an educational service center that sponsors charter schools to bring on a statewide online charter school and maintain sponsorship of it even if the academic outcomes were poor… Essentially, the sponsor would have an exemption from the academic accountability portion of the state’s sponsor evaluation system.”

The ECOT saga drags on and on in Ohio, where it would seem money and state politics make charter school regulation impossible.  Here, summarizing the current operation of Ohio’s super-majority, one-party, Republican legislature, is Columbus Dispatch columnist Darrel Rowland: “They didn’t teach this in ‘How a Bill Becomes a Law.’ A mysterious amendment makes its way into a state budget bill. One by one, lawmakers, including the speaker of the House, express surprise that the three-paragraph provision was part of the measure they just approved, and all deny knowing how it got there. A Legislative Service Commission staffer eventually gets the blame.”

This blog has covered the long-running ECOT saga here.

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