The Republican move to set up an online charter school study committee is an obvious attempt to get in front of what is shaping up as a major black eye for Ohio Republicans and as useful campaign ammunition for Ohio Democrats.
Democrats are trying to break open the Republican monopoly on the statewide offices on the ballot this year — governor, attorney general, secretary of state, auditor, and treasurer.
The good news for Democrats is that these are all open seats. And Republican misdeeds and mistakes this year have been numerous enough to give Democrats hope of prevailing in one or more of them.
Prominent among them is the scandal of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, which cost the taxpayers about $1 billion over 18 years in return for lackluster-at-best educational outcomes.
In January, the Ohio Department of Education brought the hammer down on ECOT, ordering the for-profit-managed e-school to repay about $80 million for exaggerated pupil funding claims.
The decision forced the school out of business, leaving 12,000 students to find new schools. Many fled to other online schools.
Under ECOT’s funding arrangement with an overly compliant state of Ohio, the online school — until 2016 — was only required to claim that it was offering 920 hours of educational opportunity a year to its enrollees to qualify for the full state per-pupil reimbursement.
Many students were spending just one hour a day on their computers. But until the state Education Department finally got brave, ECOT never had to account for the actual time students were participating in learning.
ECOT founder and vendor Bill Lager and his allies funneled millions of dollars in campaign contributions to friendly lawmakers and state officials while critics’ complaints about ECOT’s breezy funding arrangement fell on deaf ears. A lot of those Republican officials - including most of the statewide candidates — spoke at ECOT’s graduation ceremonies.
Some say there’s an analogy with that 2006 scandal Coingate. Both had roots in Lucas County (ECOT is sponsored by Lucas County’s Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West). And both involve choice Florida real estate. Like Tom Noe, Mr. Lager bought a sweet Florida oceanside home with his earnings.
So far, the comparison between ECOT and Coingate falls short because there are no criminal implications — yet.
And the fact is, Republican officeholders in Ohio are ideologically pro-charter school, just as Democratic officeholders are more ideologically opposed to charter schools.
And gaming the state’s procedures to gain an advantage is not just something e-schools do. Public school districts have been reprimanded for “data-scrubbing” practices to prevent some students’ low test scores from dragging down district’s annual Report Card grades.
House Bill 707 would create more stringent rules for funding online education and require greater accountability from those schools. The GOP bill also creates a committee of lawmakers to study e-school funding, to report back by Nov. 1 — a week before the election. It is sponsored by state Rep. Keith Faber (R., Celina) and by state Rep. Bill Reineke (R., Tiffin).
RELATED: ECOT scandal not just a GOP failure
Mr. Reineke is facing an opponent who has a national following, Democrat Rachel Crooks, director of international students at Heidelberg University who is one of the women who have claimed to be a victim of unwanted physical advances by Donald Trump.
Ms. Crooks blasted the formation of the committee.
“That these same people would try now to pretend like they care — because it’s an election year — should infuriate the taxpayers whose dollars were lost and the students who were failed by poor education policies,” Ms. Crooks said.
The study committee has the potential to shed light on the history of ECOT’s excessively benign treatment over the years.
It also has the potential to give Republicans cover to ignore the topic so as not to interfere with the work of the committee.
Democrats will hold two of the six seats on the committee. Republicans will control the agenda, but Democrats will have a voice in the proceedings.
Republicans can claim they are now serious about reining in charter school funding abuses. Better late than never, but it doesn’t make amends for the years of benign neglect.
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