Sunday, Sep 23, 2018
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Tom Troy

ECOT scandal not just a GOP failure

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    Hundreds of supporters of Ohio's largest online charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow or ECOT, participate in a May 9, 2017, rally outside the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio.


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As the election approaches, it’s a good idea to delve into some of the complex fragments that make up the saga of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.

The Ohio Democratic Party has made Chartergate its main focus of the election campaign so far, and with good reason.

Read more by Tom Troy

ECOT gave about $2.5 million to politicians (overwhelmingly Republican) while running a highly profitable public Ohio charter school that generated about $100 million a year in per-pupil reimbursement from the state.

In the last two years, the ECOT scheme has come crashing down, and in January it was forced into bankruptcy when the state Department of Education demanded — with backing from the state Supreme Court — $80 million for exaggerated student attendance claims.

The school, which allowed students to work at home connected with teachers through computers, enrolled more than 15,000 students a year.

No one knows how many hours those students spent in “education,” or even how many hours they were logged onto computers. A review of ECOT’s documents and procedures and history shows that there was education of some kind going on. Children graduated. Many parents were very happy.

Did the students come anywhere near the 920 hours of education mandated by Ohio law? Its contract, signed here in Toledo where ECOT is sponsored in 2003, exempted ECOT from that requirement; the school only had to show that it was presenting pupils with 920 hours of educational opportunity.

But in 2016, the Ohio Department of Education decided to begin enforcing a rule that it said allowed it to override ECOT’s contract. ECOT was ordered to re-pay for students whose hours it had not accounted for in the previous two years, and it went bankrupt, dumping 12,000 students into other schools mid-year.

(By the way, you’d think an entity calling itself “Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow” would be able to keep those kinds of records.)

Responsibility for the benign neglect of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow rests mainly with Republican politicians, who created Ohio’s charter school law in 1997 and expanded it thereafter, while using it as a source of campaign contributions.

But Democrats held power during part of ECOT’s run, and there is no sign that the Ohio Department of Education under Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland pushed back against ECOT’s overly permissive funding arrangement.

“Chartergate” could mushroom from a bureaucratic scandal to a criminal investigation before voters go to the polls in November to elect a governor, attorney general, secretary of state, auditor, and treasurer.

As a precaution, Republicans are rushing to give the money that they got from ECOTs’ top officials to charity before it all gets swept up into a criminal probe.

State Auditor David Yost (R.), who is now running for attorney general against Democrat Steve Dettelbach, gave $29,395 to charity, the same amount that he received from ECOT over the years.

Mr. Yost, trying to reposition himself as an avenger against ECOT, released an audit last week that advocated a criminal inquiry into ECOT’s practices of applying for state per-pupil funding.

He said ECOT used fake data and the Ohio Department of Education fell for it. Mr. Dettelbach contends Mr. Yost ignored glaring gaps in ECOT’s reporting over the years and ignored an ECOT whistleblower, allowing the evidence trail to go cold.

If criminal charges are filed against ECOT, that will change the political climate in Ohio in the same way that Coingate did in 2006.

RELATED: Education concerns take backseat to political considerations

One of the culprits in letting ECOT get away with unverified attendance figures is the Ohio Department of Education, which kept its collective head buried in the sand for more than 10 years — four of those years under a Democratic governor.

Although complaints about ECOT’s easy funding began to surface and be publicly addressed in the news media around 2014, it wasn’t until January, 2016, that DOE took decisive action, suddenly going after the previous two years of inflated student enrollment retroactively.

Though ECOT has argued that DOE went after the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 funding in violation of its 2003 contract, the state Court of Appeals for Franklin County agreed with ODE that ECOT’s contract wasn’t open-ended, and that DOE’s policies predated January, 2016. The state Supreme Court is still reviewing.

ECOT sought an amendment in the Senate in 2016 that would have delayed or prevented ECOT’s day of reckoning by codifying ECOT’s 2003 contract provisions in state law. State Sen. Joe Schiavoni (D., Boardman), a recent unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor, brought public pressure on the proposed amendment and it was never introduced.

ECOT is a scandal of education in Ohio that Republicans will pay for. Democrats also had a chance to correct e-school funding practices and didn’t.

Contact Tom Troy at tomtroy@theblade.com419-724-6058, or on Twitter @TomFTroy.

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