The surprise really ought to be that the 17-year, billion dollar ripoff of tax dollars by the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) has remained among high profile election issues in this 2018 election season. After all, when USA Today profiled 28 American cities which have not yet recovered from the 2008 Recession, 9 of them were in Ohio: Warren, Youngstown, Mansfield, Marion, Lorain, Middletown, Sandusky, Akron and Dayton. Besides the economy, the opioid crisis is devastating parts of the state and healthcare more generally is an issue.
But the ECOT scandal hasn’t died as an issue on voters’ minds. Partly this is due to clever work by public education advocates and Democrats. When ECOT’s property was auctioned off, an anonymous purchaser paid $152 in taxes and fees to buy the costume of ECOT’s mascot, Eddy the Eagle. You can watch Eddy on twitter, @EddyEagleECOT, traveling to political events across the state carrying his “Ask Me About Mike DeWine” sign. DeWine, running as Ohio’s Republican candidate for governor, has been Ohio’s attorney general since 2010 but only filed a lawsuit to recover tax dollars lost to ECOT last winter as the school was being shut down.
Because of the way Ohio distributes state aid and the way its charter school law works, over its 17-year life, ECOT ate up local school operating levy dollars in addition to state aid. A tech-savvy opponent of Ohio’s entrenched Republican majority has now set up https://www.kidsnotcorruption.com/ , an interactive website which describes ECOT: “ECOT THE SCANDAL: Wondering just how bad is the ECOT scandal? Well, you should be angry because ECOT is the biggest taxpayer ripoff in Ohio history and Republicans are responsible. Sadly, it’s our kids who were hurt.” At this website it is possible to track how much each Ohio school district has lost to ECOT over the years: for example, from Cleveland’s schools, $ 39,405,981; from Columbus’ schools, $591,000,000; from Cincinnati’s schools, $ 14,648,988.
Several local school districts have now initiated legal action on their own against ECOT to recover lost funds, and three other school districts so far have filed in court to argue that they do not want Attorney General Mike DeWine, who earlier this year filed to recover funds from ECOT, representing them. The Dayton Daily News‘ Josh Sweigart reports: “Springfield City Schools is joining Dayton Public Schools and the Logan-Hocking School District in arguing in court that they don’t want the state representing them in getting money from ECOT. The school districts argue that Attorney General Mike DeWine—the Republican candidate for governor—is soft on charter schools and has received campaign donations from ECOT founder Bill Lager… DPS and Springfield are both working with the Cleveland-based law firm Cohen, Rosenthal and Kramer. The firm is working on a contingency fee, meaning it gets paid only if the districts succeed… (T)he districts are skeptical that DeWine would be as aggressive as their attorney.”
William Phillis, executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, notes, in his October 11, Daily E-Mail, that Attorney General Mike DeWine has filed a memorandum opposing the intervention of local school districts in this case on their own because their interest is “substantively remote from the claims” in the Attorney General’s lawsuit. Phillis notes that William Lager, ECOT’s founder and operator has made “essentially the same arguments” to oppose the intervention by specific school districts on their own behalf. Phillis comments: “It is curious that both the Plaintiff and Defendant in this case are on the same page. That accord might validate the importance of intervention by the districts. If they agree on this matter, maybe they will agree on more substantial issues.”
On October 8, the Cleveland Plain Dealer endorsed Cleveland attorney, Steve Dettelbach for attorney general in the fall election over his opponent Dave Yost, the current Republican state auditor. Yost was elected to that post in November, 2010. He has been accused of moving too slowly against ECOT, and the Plain Dealer‘s endorsement reflects this concern: “There is a tiebreaker in this decision however, and it comes in the form of the long-running ECOT… scandal that has hung like a millstone around the neck of a number of Republicans on the Ohio ballot this year who took large campaign contributions from those connected to the now-shuttered online school. That includes Yost, who announced he’s given more than $29,000 in ECOT-related contributions to charity but denies the campaign donations impacted his actions… But the fact remains that the whistleblower’s warning came in 2014 and Yost’s office did not start investigating with gusto until 2016.”
Meanwhile, on October 10, Ohio’s U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D)—running for re-election in November, joined the ranking member of the Senate’s education committee, Patty Murray (D-WA) to request that the federal Government Accountability Office investigate the operation of online charter schools across the United States. In his re-election bid, Brown already leads his Republican opponent in November by an enormous margin, and perhaps Brown’s distant, Washington, D.C. request for an investigation of e-charter schools will barely ripple across Ohio. But the request puts Brown, Ohio’s only statewide elected Democrat, on record as someone aware of the 17-year online charter school scandal in his home state, where Republicans have controlled the statehouse and all elected state offices since 2011.
In their letter requesting an investigation by the GAO, Senators Murray and Brown explain: “Research on virtual charter schools shows that students attending such schools perform much worse than their peers receiving in-person instruction in traditional, brick-and-mortar public schools… Despite these negative outcomes, most states distribute funding to virtual charter schools as they would to brick-and-mortar schools. And yet, there is limited information on how operators allocate those public dollars to educate students and manage company operations. This is especially problematic as the majority of virtual charter schools are either explicitly operated by or connected to for-profit companies that have perverse incentives to minimize the cost of instruction and student supports in order to boost their bottom line. Accountability models, funding formulas, and attendance policies were created for brick-and-mortar schools, and yet, state funding and accountability policies have not kept pace with the growth of virtual charter schools. States and districts have yet to identify models that will effectively measure student participation and attendance rates in online schools. As a result, it is difficult to determine how many students these schools are serving and how much funding they should receive. For example, in Ohio, (the) Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) concealed attendance numbers as well as student participation and graduation rates for years before the state and local regulators acted.”