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Federal ECOT dollars belong to local schools, senator says

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    U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown on Monday proposed legislation to require that any federal funds recovered from the now defunct Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow be returned to local districts whose aid had been redirected to the e-school.

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    In this May, 2017 photo, Bill Lager, center in cap, co-founder of Ohio's largest online charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow or ECOT, speaks to hundreds of supporters during a rally outside the Statehouse in Columbus.

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COLUMBUS — U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown on Monday proposed legislation to require that any federal funds recovered from the now defunct Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow be returned to local districts that had funding redirected to the e-school.

He said the federal government should go beyond the two school years for which Ohio is clawing back funds to look at the $130 million total that ECOT had received in federal funds since its founding in 2000.

“Ohio has been known since I’ve been involved in this since 2014 as the Wild Wild West of for-profit school charter,” Mr. Brown said at a Statehouse news conference. “It’s meant that students have been betrayed by corruption in state government. It meant that taxpayers have been fleeced by that same corruption in state government.”

VIDEO: Sen. Sherrod Brown talks about his proposed legislation

The senator is taking a page from the political playbook of fellow Ohio Democrats who’ve made the controversy over what was once the state’s largest online school the centerpiece of their campaign to fight their way back into relevancy in state government with this year’s elections.

Mr. Brown is seeking a third six-year term on the Nov. 6 ballot opposite U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci (R., Wadsworth). 

"Career politician Sherrod Brown has had 25 years in Congress to fix our education system, and he has completely failed Ohio students,” Renacci campaign spokesman Leslie Shedd said. “Now that it's an election year, Brown has introduced a politically motivated bill that has absolutely no chance of passing in the Senate in the hopes no one will notice his absolutely abysmal record on education.

“The people of Ohio want to see results from their leaders, not PR stunts,” she said.

Current efforts by the state Department of Education to recover subsidies based on student enrollment figures that the school couldn’t back up just go back to the 2015-16 school year.

Attorney General Mike DeWine last week filed a lawsuit in Franklin County Common Pleas Court against ECOT founder William Lager, affiliated companies providing management and curriculum services to the school, and several former school business officials in hopes of recovering $62 million still owed to the state.

Mr. Brown said these dollars should go to the local school districts despite the fact that they didn’t teach these students while they were officially enrolled with ECOT.

“Most schools will tell you that money that leaves the school leaves a shortfall,” he said. “The money that goes to schools also goes for overhead and so much else than just classroom teaching. You had the problem right now starting in January when ECOT closed and dumped all this responsibility on schools.

“Schools had to come up with the money, had to come with the resources to teach these kids,” Mr. Brown said. “In some sense, it’s a payback to those schools for that interim period, too.”

The money would be put to better use locally than if it were dropped in the U.S. Treasury, he said.

ECOT struggled financially as the state reduced its monthly subsidies to the district to gradually take back what the school owed. ECOT closed its doors in mid-January, sending some 12,000 students scrambling to find alternatives, after its Toledo sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, pulled its support.

So far, the state has recovered $17.6 million that it contends were overpayments in subsidies for students that ECOT could not demonstrate were logged into the instructional system long enough to qualify as full-time.

Contact Jim Provance at jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.

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