In a five-year period, the scandal-ridden Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow charter diverted $591 million from local school districts in Ohio, including $24 million from those in the Mahoning Valley.
So, what did Ohioans get for that financial raid on public education? An abject lesson in how special-interest politics influences policymaking.
The charter-school industry has operated in Ohio for more than two decades with comparatively limited oversight because Republicans in state government have been held hostage by the campaign contributions and other largess from the charter operators.
As a result, billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on this experiment in education that has largely proven to be a failure. Nonetheless, Republican decision-makers in Columbus continue to insist that charter schools are a necessary alternative to underperforming public schools.
But the now defunct Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, which was touted by the GOP when it was launched, is a stark reminder of the charter industry’s failure to deliver.
Indeed, ECOT’s demise hits home because many districts in Ohio fell victim to the online school.
At its peak, there were 12,000 students who were lured away from public education with the promise of bright academic futures online.
It’s now clear that a leading beneficiary of the taxpayer dollars was William “Bill” Lager, who founded the charter school in 2000
Lager bailed out in January of this year after ECOT was unable to repay about $80 million it owed the state.
Here’s how the Cincinnati Enquirer explained what occurred: ECOT received taxpayer money based on the amount of time students spent online to learn. The charter school submitted that data to the state, which then doled out the appropriate amount of money.
However, an audit of the 2015-16 school year found ECOT was getting money for 9,000 students without proof that those students existed or were learning anything. The state sought reimbursement of $60.4 million.
Supreme Court case
ECOT has disputed the audit and appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court. The case is pending.
Another state audit of the 2016-17 school year found that ECOT over- estimated students again, taking about $19 million in taxpayer money without proper documentation.
ECOT – in light of the scandal it should be called Electronic Classroom of Travesty – closed after its Toledo-based sponsor withdrew its sponsorship.
But the damage has been done, and for that Republicans in state government must be held to account. Their fealty to the charter industry has caused thousands of Ohio students to fail academically.
In addition, the redirecting of more than a half-billion dollars from public school districts to ECOT exacerbated the financial difficulties confronting public education in Ohio.
The $24 million taken away from schools in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties is nothing short of daylight robbery because families were sold a bill of goods.
As we said at the outset, Republicans own the ECOT scandal and, predictably, Democrats are already using it as one of the pillars of their November statewide election campaign.
GOP gubernatorial candidate Mike DeWine, his lieutenant governor running mate Jon Husted, Ohio Auditor Dave Yost and the Republican majority in the General Assembly are vulnerable to the charge that they have rolled over for the charter industry.
We have long called for charter schools to be governed by the same laws, rules and regulations as public schools. There’s a compelling reason for this: The expenditure of tax dollars demands transparency and accountability.
According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, the FBI may be investigating some aspects of ECOT’s operation. The newspaper also said the feds could be looking into allegations that Lager, founder of the online school, gave money to his employees so they would then donate that money to state lawmakers to ensure ECOT’s future.
The online school failed because there were inadequate regulations, limited oversight, profiteering on the part of the owners and political influence- peddling.
Ohio’s charter school network has gained national notoriety – and not in a good way. The Washington Post has reported extensively on the failure of charters in Ohio and has made note of the fact that billions of dollars have been spent on what has largely been a boondoggle for the private operators.
Republicans who have enabled the charters have a lot of explaining to do.