Archives for category: Virtual Charter Schools

Recently, Republicans in Pennsylvania lambasted public schools for wasting money by setting up reserve funds for a rainy day. Meanwhile the State throws away hundreds of millions every year to pay for low-performing, unaccountable, profitable cyber charters.

Two Democratic legislators—Rep. Ismail “Izzy” Smith-Wade-El and Rep. Mike Sturla—wrote a rebuttal to the Republicans:

Republicans have criticized 12 school districts — including the School District of Lancaster, Penn Manor and Hempfield — for following normal procedures by making sure their general funds are healthy and able to support the many projects and upgrades all districts must contend with, especially in these difficult times.

The attack was inspired by an audit conducted by Pennsylvania Auditor General Timothy DeFoor….

In an interview with WITF, Auditor DeFoor questioned the need for school districts to maintain reserves at all, stating, “As far as putting money away for a rainy day, that’s great for a private individual such as ourselves, but not necessarily for a governmental entity.”

To embrace this view would be highly irresponsible. Fund balances are not recurring, so it would be inappropriate to use them for recurring expenses like salaries. This would lead many school districts to quickly go into the red. Additionally, any school district chief financial officer would attest to how one-time expenses come up all the time — and school districts must always be prepared for the worst. To suggest that districts should only be able to raise taxes if they have no fund balance goes against any solid financial principles.

The commonwealth itself, with the assistance of the GOP, recently added money into its rainy day fund, which at nearly $5 billion is the largest in state history. To turn around and criticize our local schools for saving for rainy days is simply hypocritical…

Currently, 447 out of 500 school districts have signed a resolution demanding commonsense charter school funding reform to ease some of the burden, yet none of the proposed bills to address the situation were ever brought up for a vote in the last legislative session when our colleagues across the aisle controlled the state House.

In the 2020-21 school year, Pennsylvanians spent more than $1 billion on students enrolled in cybercharter schools.

Tuition for an independent cybercharter is considerably higher than for an online education program offered by a school district. And these cybercharter schools charge highly inflated tuition rates for students who have special needs — allowing them to profit from students with disabilities at the cost of local taxpayers. What are these cybercharter companies doing with that extra taxpayer money? Research suggests that the money is spent on advertising, executive salaries, other administrative costs — and, according to Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based education research group, carrying high fund balances. This all comes at the expense of our friends and neighbors struggling to afford their homes. This is wrong.

We encourage our fellow state House members to join us in fighting for more accountability from our state’s charter and cybercharter schools by ensuring that there is a single statewide tuition rate for regular and special education students that matches tuition to the actual costs of educating students at home on a computer. We need to ensure that cyberschools — which do not have the same operating costs of our local brick-and-mortar public schools — are especially held accountable when it comes to matching tuition fees with the actual cost of educating their students.

Ohio has poured taxpayer dollars into charter schools, even though public schools consistently outperform charter schools. Ohio has poured more than $1 billion into virtual charters, even though the biggest of them (ECOT, or The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow) had the lowest graduation rate in the nation and declared bankruptcy rather than pay back $67 million to the state for large numbers of phantom students. But despite its dismal statistics, it collected $1 billion over its 20 years in business. Vouchers were evaluated by a researcher chosen by a pro-choice think tank, and the report said that voucher students were falling behind.

Given this long history of school choice failure, wouldn’t you think the state would step back and evaluate its commitment to failure?

Of course not. The GOP dominated Legislature wants to expand vouchers.

Why does the Ohio GOP invest in failure?

Morgan Trau of News5Cleveland explains:

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A bill to expand the school voucher system and provide more money to home-schoolers has been proposed in Ohio as the Department of Education is investigating a Nazi home-schooling scandal. This is not the first Holocaust education issue the state has had in one year.

Ohio’s public schools have been pushing for consistent funding for decades.

William Philis, executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding, has spent his career fighting against the voucher system.

“We don’t have a constitutional system and they’re exacerbating the unconstitutionality of the system by draining money out of the public school system,” Philis said.

A new bill introduced to the state Senate will continue to leave public schools behind in favor of supporting private schools, he added.

Senate Bill 11 is expected to use taxpayer money to give $5,500 to elementary and middle school students and $7,500 to high schoolers so they can attend any public, community or charted nonpublic school. Ashtabula Republican Sen. Sandra O’Brien introduced the bill because, “Ohio should act now to put parents, not government, in control of their children’s education,” she said in sponsor testimony Tuesday.

Eric Frank, president of School Choice Ohio, believes the legislation allows children to get the best education possible.

“Primarily, what those do is they target scholarships to families that either live in what we typically refer to as under-performing public school areas, not necessarily districts, but buildings within districts and also low-income families,” Frank said.

The bill would expand the current EdChoice Scholarship to give universal eligibility to all students in the state of Ohio.

There are two sections of the current program:

  • EdChoice Expansion, which the state reported had 17,152 students participating in fiscal year 2021, requires income verification. Eighty-five percent of these students were below the 200% poverty rate.
  • Standard EdChoice, which the state reported has 33,129 student in FY 2021, does not require income verification. More than 75% of the students utilizing this program were not low-income qualified.

Of the total 50,281 students, 25,180 are low-income qualified, with 25,101 that are not. This means that half of the students utilizing taxpayer money to go to a private or charter school are not designated as “needing government assistance.”

This is not to say that people who aren’t in that designation don’t struggle to have to pay the full price of the tuition — but it just means it is unknown if they do struggle to pay or not.

“Most people are really happy with their public schools,” Frank added. “But families that aren’t, they should have another option.”

Philis strongly disagreed.

“I’d say that’s pure poppycock,” Philis said. “I don’t get a voucher for a backyard swimming pool because I don’t want to go to the public pool.”

Even if a student takes a voucher, private schools choose who will be admitted, the advocate said.

“What we’re doing in Ohio right now is that we’re funding segregation,” he stated. “We are funding, with taxpayer money, White Flight.”

The Fair School Funding Plan (FSFP), was somewhat attempted to be put into place for fiscal year 2021-22. It was supposed to change how the state delegates funding for school districts.

Starting in the 2021 FY, lawmakers added hundreds of millions of state dollars in both direct funding and tax credits to subsidize families sending their children to private and charter schools. Critics, like Ohio Education Association, said this makes taxpayers pay for these for-profit schools and diverts money away from public education, which desperately needs it.

The bill would also expand the home-school tax credit from $250 to $2,000, which raises concerns.

Ohio’s Nazi Education Problem

The Ohio Dept. of Education is investigating a family in Upper Sandusky after it was revealed that their home-school program was allegedly a Nazi propaganda school, where children were taught how to love Hitler and become a “wonderful Nazi.”

Logan and Katja Lawrence were the alleged creators of the “Dissident Homeschool” group which had 2,500 members on its Telegram channel when they were exposed in a late January article from VICE News.

“We need to ensure that home-schooling is not an opportunity for parents to systemically teach their children hatred,” state Sen. Catherine D. Ingram (D-Cincinnati) said. “Senate Bill 1, which is pending in Education Committee, weakens home-schooling requirements. The legislature must protect our children from instruction fueled by racism and intolerance.”

News 5 asked Sen. President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) if there should be oversight over the home-school program, which he said “absolutely,” but there are specific rules and regulations.

“I hope we’re long past the point in our society where we take the actions of one person or a small group of people and paint the entire group as though somehow they’re participating in that,” Huffman responded.

The Department of Education should be figuring out what is going on, he added.

“I hope, frankly, that people will not try to take some political advantage or policy advantage… basically trying to decide that a couple of sociopaths somewhere in Ohio who are doing strange things that… somehow should affect the policy of the rest of the state is anathema to me,” the GOP leader said (anathema means something that a person hates).

Democrats have already been jumping at making sure a situation like this does not happen again.

There are only two Jewish members in the Ohio House — Democratic Reps. Casey Weinstein of Hudson and Dani Isaacsohn of Cincinnati.

Weinstein consistently tweets about antisemitism, including a recent post advocating for more home-schooling regulations. Republican state Rep. Riordan McClain, who represents the area in which the alleged Nazi-group resides, responded to him.

“Let’s not take freedom away from all for the terrible ideas of a few,” McClain said. “I can tell you as a home-educating parent from Upper, I’ve never heard of these people.”

In a statement to the press, McClain condemned the Nazi-based teachings and “racial hatred.” He, however, acknowledged that “differing opinions exist in a free society and our job as community members is to have robust ongoing debates.”

“Get the public system out of the way, give the parents the money — we’re going to have a school that involves the Ku Klux Klan mentality,” Philis said.

Frank argued back.

“There are 50,000 families in Ohio that are home-schooling their kids,” Frank said. “And my guess is 99.9% of them probably do a good job and they are their kids, and so it’s their right.”

News 5 continues to search to find out if the Lawrence family has received any funding from the state.

This is not the first time Ohio has dealt with a Holocaust-related scandal in the past year.

Back in March of 2022, News 5 aired an exclusive report about comments made by one of the primary sponsors of a bill to ban schools from teaching “divisive topics” — H.B. 327. The report stemmed from an interview exchange between state Rep. Sarah Fowler Arthur (R-Ashtabula) and News 5 Statehouse reporter Morgan Trau.

During the interview, Fowler Arthur was asked about the financial aspect of the bill. While attempting to talk about funding, she brought up the Holocaust, saying that students needed to hear the massacre from the perspective of the “German soldiers.”

After the exclusive story went international, the original divisive concepts bill had been renamed the “both sides bill” or the “both sides of the Holocaust bill.”

Former Speaker of the Ohio House Bob Cupp (R-Lima) responded to a question about the lawmaker’s comments on the Holocaust, saying they were “inappropriate remarks, they were uninformed remarks.”

The bill swiftly died, despite Fowler Arthur’s repeated efforts to bring it back to life, a records request by News 5 showed. Also in the records were dozens of angry emails to the lawmaker.

She was previously on the state Board of Education but has never participated in the public education system as a student or a parent. She was home-schooled and did not attend college.

In the new General Assembly, the lawmaker will have more power than she has ever had. News 5 shared in January that Fowler Arthur will be the primary and secondary Education Committee’s vice chair.

“I think that in terms of the committee makeup, is it concerning to me that that individual has been given a leadership position on an education committee? Absolutely,” Minority House Leader Allison Russo (D-Upper Arlington) told News 5 in a one-on-one interview.

Luckily, Russo said, the vice chair shouldn’t have a huge role in leading the direction of a committee.

Follow WEWS statehouse reporter Morgan Trau on Twitter and Facebook.

Writing in The Progressive, Carol Burris raised an important question: Where are the 1.3 million children who didn’t return to school after schools reopened? Burris is the executive director of the Network for Public Education.

As she points out, the lobbyists for the privatizers claim that they must be in charter schools or voucher schools, but Burris shows this is not accurate. Some may be homeschooled; but the data on the number of children being homeschooled is inadequate to know how many children are being tutored at home.

Burris writes:

Between the fall of 2019 and 2021, 1.3 million children left the American public school system, according toEducation Week. For those who care about the welfare of children, this sharp decline is worrisome. We know that enrollment declineswere the steepest in large cities, where our neediest students reside and where COVID-19 was more devastating.

How many have dropped out, working in the underground economy or languishing at home without schooling? The honest answer is that there is no comprehensive accounting of where (or if) all of those 1.3 million children are now being schooled.

However, what should be a national concern centered on the welfare of children has instead become promotional material for those who wish to eliminate public schools. The libertarian right and its allies, including the Center for Education Reform, have chalked up the decline to a story of unhappy public school parents exercising school choice. But is it?

According to a 2020 report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), “hundreds of thousands of families switched to charter schools during the first full school year of the pandemic.” On the surface, that is correct. But the report avoids the elephant in the room—the kinds of charter schools that gained enrollment during this period.

The 2020 charter enrollment spike that NAPCS reported was largely due to increased enrollment in low-quality online charter schools, as I detailed in an analysis for The Washington Post. Enrollment in these schools increased by 175,260 students during the 2020-2021 school year, representing more than 70 percent of the NAPCS’s reported enrollment growth.

The increase in enrollment in online charter schools that occurred during the early years of the pandemic is part of a long-term trend. In 2013, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) started tracking the online school sector. In the pre-pandemic years, between 2013 and 2020, online schools accounted for 25 percent of charter enrollment growth, according to the center’s data.

In 2022, NAPCS published another report that presented a dizzying array of data, some of which contradicted the previous year’s report, to make the case that charters had retained the students they gained in the pandemic shift.

According to that report, in fall 2021, there were only 1,436 fewer students in charters compared to 33,308 fewer students in public schools than there were in fall 2020. The most recent NCES numbers tell a different story: According to that data, charter school enrollment dropped by 5,323 students in 2021, while public school enrollment increased by 83,323 students—small shifts but nevertheless important to note.

So, did charter school enrollment go up during the pandemic? Yes. Was this a seismic shift? No….

Leaders of the anti-public school movement promote bootleg homeschools and “micro-schools” as innovative alternatives to public schools, using declines in test scores as the rationale for abandoning the public system. Ironically, however, homeschoolers are not required to provide any evidence of student learning in most states. This includes Arizona, whose ESA voucher program is taxpayer-funded with no standards. Parents can awarda high school diploma based on any criteria they want. According to Ed Choice, the average Arizona ESA account value on January 17, 2023 exceeded $15,500 per year per student. (On January 18, the site updated that figure to $11,332.)

This is akin to an insurance company giving the parent of an ill child a payout to spend on a cure—with no stipulation that the parent goes to a licensed physician or that anyone reports back on the child’s health.

Certainly, there are responsible homeschoolers who have developed sound programs to educate and socialize their child. But without requirements to provide sound evidence of learning, a sudden spike in homeschooling should be a cause for alarm, not celebration.

While libertarian advocacy groups call for a “de-centralized network of schools,” to resemble what existed for American schooling in the nineteenth century, before Horace Mann, the truth is that before it became a universal system of “government funded and operated schools,” schooling in America was an uncoordinated, free-for-all that left most children undereducated, which is exactly where the contemporary school choice movement is headed.

Instead, what we should be concentrating on is locating those 1.3 million children and ensuring they are both educated and safe.

Ohio is a state dominated by Republicans. When progressive candidates won seats on the state board in the recent election, Republicans moved swiftly to strip the state board of its powers and transfer them to a new state agency.

The state board has 19 seats. Eleven are elected. Eight are appointed by the Governor, Republican Mike DeWine.

News5 reported on the GOP plan to strip the state board of its powers.

For the first time in years, progressive candidates will control the elected seats on the executive agency, regulating if a resolution is able to pass or not. Candidates are voted on as nonpartisan candidates, however, each leans conservative or progressive and will be endorsed by a party. School board candidates tend to share their beliefs publically.

Three of the five seats up for grabs were taken by liberal candidates. Tom Jackson, of Solon, beat out incumbent Tim Miller by about 50,000 votes. Teresa Fedor, a now-former state senator from Toledo, beat opponent Sarah McGervey by more than 30,000 votes. Katie Hofmann, of Cincinnati, beat out incumbent Jenny Kilgore by around 30,000 votes.

“We’re just looking forward to getting back to Columbus and doing the people’s work,” Jackson told News 5.

Now, seven of the 11 elected seats are held by Democrats. The elected seats ensure that the total board can’t pass all resolutions it wants, since it needs a 2/3 majority. Of the 19 total seats, eight were appointed by Gov. DeWine. Now, with 12 GOP seats, a Democrat would need to switch over for policy to pass. This could change depending on attendance.

Even though Republicans hold a majority, they don’t have a 2/3 majority, and they won’t be able to pass resolutions without at least one Democrat.

Republican Governor Mike DeWine endorsed the plan to neuter the state board.

Gov. Mike DeWine said Wednesday he supports an Ohio Senate bill that would overhaul the Ohio Department of Education, gut powers from the Ohio State Board of Education and give his office more oversight of education.

“I think virtually every governor for 40 or 50 years has wanted to have more control in regard to the Department of Education,” DeWine, a Republican, told reporters. “So this governor is not going to be different. You know, I support the bill.”

Senate Bill 178 would put the Ohio Department of Education under a cabinet-level official in the governor’s office and rename the agency the Department of Education and Workforce, which would be called by the acronym DEW. The cabinet official would oversee the department, a task currently held by the state school board. The department would have two divisions: one for primary and secondary education and one for workforce training.

The 19-member state school board, made up of 11 elected members and eight members appointed by the governor, would continue to exist, but it would be stripped of most of its duties. It would oversee educator licensing and select the superintendent of public instruction, who would be a secretary to the board and an advisor to the DEW leader in the governor’s office.

“Candidly, the bill was not our idea, but I support the bill,” DeWine said. “I think what the public expects is accountability. And it’s hard to have accountability under our current system. You know, having the Department of Education with kind of a joint control between the governor’s office and the governor on certain areas, and other areas be the state elected Board of Education, I think is a very significant improvement.”

We have seen the same anti-democratic move in other states, like Indiana and North Carolina, where the legislature removed powers from the Governor or state superintendent so as to keep control of education in Republican hands, disregarding the voters’ wishes.

Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, delves into the charter lobby’s boasts about enrollment growth during the pandemic. Most of that increase, she found, was in virtual charter schools, the lowest performing of all charter schools. Her post appeared on Valerie Strauss’s blog at The Washington Post.

Burris writes:

Last October, this post examined state 2020-21 enrollment data indicating that large numbers of students had during the coronavirus pandemic moved to virtual charter schools, which are notorious for being the lowest performing schools in the charter sector. Researchers and advocacy organizations, including the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, had previously been highly critical of virtual charters….

Charters operated by the for-profit online giant Stride K12 increased from 72,474 students in 2019-2020 to 110,767 in 2020-2021. Its strongest competitor, Pearson’s Connections Academy, experienced even stronger proportional growth, from 53,673 to 85,749.

Overall, the for-profit-run charter sector enrolled more than 50 percent of all students registered in virtual charters during both years…

In March 2022, the GAO issued a blistering report on virtual charter schools. The analysis showed that virtual charter students lagged behind their peers in brick-and-mortar charter schools, and even further behind students in brick-and-mortar public schools in publicly overseen districts.
When the GAO reviewed student proficiency in math and reading, they found “the national average math proficiency rate for virtual charter schools was 25 percentage points lower than the rate for brick-and-mortar traditional schools” and “the average reading proficiency rate for virtual charter schools was 9 percentage points lower than brick-and-mortar traditional schools.”

(Government Accountability Office analysis) (The Washington Post/Government Accountability Office)

While many virtual charter operators claim that the students attending their schools are often already lagging, the GAO made sure to control for several factors that could impact these proficiency rates, including past academic performance and student mobility. Even after controlling for those factors, the GAO still found virtual students’ scores statistically significantly behind brick-and-mortar public school students’. Not only that, fewer virtual students bothered to take state tests.

The Keystone Center for Charter Change at the Pennsylvania School Boards Association reprinted the following report about Pennsylvania’s low-quality cyber charters.

Pa. cyber-charter schools lead on cost; lag on results

PA Capital-Star by John L. Micek, January 28, 2022Pa. spends the most out of the 27 states that have cyber-charter schools, but gets the least return on investment, according to new research

Good Friday Morning, Fellow Seekers.
As public schools made the often-awkward pivot between in-person and online instruction during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the commonwealth’s cyber-charter schools saw their enrollment explode as parents raced to find reliable schooling for their children. In fact, the Keystone State’s 14 cyber-charter schools saw their enrollment rise from slightly more than 38,000 students in October 2019 to more than 60,000 students by October 2020, marking the largest year-over-year increase, the Post-Gazette reported last May, citing data compiled by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. By last April, that popularity showed no signs of abating, with a poll by Republican-friendly Susquehanna Polling & Research in Harrisburg showing that nearly 7 in 10 respondents to a poll of 700 Pennsylvanians supported the online programs, the Post-Gazette also reported. Despite that popularity, the online programs have come in for constant criticism by advocates for traditional public schools, who argue that the online schools aren’t worth the return on investment and that student performance suffers as a result (Obligatory Caveat: Charter schools are public schools that receive taxpayer money, but are run by private operators). A recently released report by a wing of the progressive-leaning advocacy group Children First keeps up that drumbeat of criticism, finding that, of the 27 states that authorize cyber-charter schools, Pennsylvania spends the most public money on these programs, but has the “weakest systems to ensure students and taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.”

Click here to read more.

“Pennsylvania is the cyber-charter capital of the nation, ML Wernecke, the director of the Pennsylvania Charter Performance Center, which conducted the study, said in a statement. “But given the persistent performance in cyber-charter programs, and the out-of-control pressure on local taxpayers, this is one place where it is not good to be first.”

Among its chief findings, the report notes that every one of Pennsylvania’s cyber-charter schools has “been identified as needing improvement under the state’s ESSA School Improvement and Accountability plan, placing them among the state’s lowest performing schools.”

In addition, consider the low graduation rates at Cybercharters:

Considering cyber schooling for your student? Millions in taxpayer-funded advertising notwithstanding, most Pennsylvania cyber charters have graduation rates 20 percentage points or more below statewide averages for all schools.

Keystone Center for Charter Change; PA Department of Education

David Lapp, director of policy research for Research for Action in Philadelphia, recently wrote about the money wasted on Cybercharters in Pennsylvania. Apparently, the industry has a strong hold on the Pennsylvania legislature. There is no other reason that it continues to thrive.

During the worst of the pandemic, schools closed for reasons of safety and caution. Cybercharters boomed to fill the gap. But with physical schools open, the truth must be told about Cybercharters: they are a poor substitute for real schools.

Lapp writes:

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools into remote learning instruction many Pennsylvania policymakers expressed deep concerns. Many lamented the impact on mental health when students stopped receiving in-person learning and the important social skills that develops. Many were upset by the evidence of significant learning loss that accompanied the switch to virtual instruction.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly even enacted a new law allowing students to voluntarily repeat a grade to make up for lost educational opportunities.

This year policymakers should consider bringing that same energy to a similarly harmful and even more wasteful form of remote learning. One that’s been growing for more than two decades and reached a boiling point during the pandemic. I’m talking about the soaring enrollment growth and accompanying financial cost of Pennsylvania’s cyber-charter school expansion.

There’s solid research both nationally and in Pennsylvania that cyber-charter schools have an “overwhelmingly negative” impact on student learning. The learning loss students experience from virtual instruction in cyber-charter schools appears similar to the learning loss students experienced from virtual instruction during the pandemic.

For each year a student is enrolled in cyber-charter school they are also more likely to experience chronic absenteeism and less like to enroll in post-secondary education.

There’s also clear evidence that spending on cyber-charter school expansion comes at the expense of students receiving in-person learning in school districts and brick & mortar charter schools, where more effective instruction is provided. In fact school districts—which pay for cyber-charter tuition from their own school budgets—have indicated that charter tuition is now their top budget pressure.

It’s easy to understand why. Pennsylvania already had the highest cyber-charter school enrollment in the country and then enrollment grew by 22,618 additional students during the pandemic. Districts are now spending over $1 billion dollars a year on cyber-charter tuition, reflecting an increase of $335 million from before the pandemic. These surging expenses impacted the vast majority of school districts in the state.

Cyber-charter tuition likely represents the most inefficient spending in Pennsylvania school finance. For one, the cyber-charter system is redundant. Both before and since the pandemic, most school districts continue to offer their own virtual schools. Secondly, the tuition rates mandated under current PA law require districts to pay cyber-charters more than it actually costs to operate virtual schools. And finally, when students leave for cyber-charter schools, districts must of course still operate their own brick & mortar schools for remaining students, only now with fewer resources….

In Research for Action’s recent report, The Negative Fiscal Impact of Cyber Charter Enrollment Due to COVID-19, we estimated that the tuition increase in just one year of the pandemic, from the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, led to between $290 to $308 million of additional stranded costs borne by school districts. Nearly the entire amount of increases in school district total expenditures statewide in 2020-21 were accounted for by increases in school district tuition payments to charter schools, most of which were for cyber-charters specifically.

Meanwhile, this tuition spike has left cyber-charters in Pennsylvania flush with surplus resources. More than half of the additional funding cyber-charters received from districts in 2020-21 was not even used for student expenses. Rather, cyber- charters funneled over $170 million into their general fund balances that, unlike school districts, have no statutory limits.

Bill Phillis, former deputy state commissioner of education in Ohio, is a relentless defender of the state constitution and public schools. In this post, he warns that the state has already lost hundreds of millions on a virtual charter school (ECOT), which went bankrupt. Having demonstrated its ability to supervise one highly visible school, how will it monitor a voucher program?

He writes:

10,000 ECOT’s Coming to Ohio

William Lager, the ECOT Man, purchased for himself the best state officials he could, and that was a lot. Controlling state officials allowed him to steal hundreds of millions from Ohio taxpayers. Did they learn a lesson?

State officials seemingly missed the lesson they should have learned from the ECOT Man: regulate the charters and private schools that are funded by taxpayers.

Since the ECOT travesty, state funds for privatization of education ventures have increased substantially and many regulations have been cancelled. Ohio is on the education privatization trajectory that will result in 10,000 ECOT’s. Since Ohio government was unable to monitor ECOT, how will it monitor vouchers for a couple million students?

HB290, the Universal Voucher Bill, may not be on a fast track, but it will be slipped into the next budget bill, unless the public education community en masse wakes up to the threat.

Charter schools and private schools that are awarded public money will never be appropriately regulated unless the mind-set of controlling state officials changes. That will not happen; hence the EdChoice voucher litigation is essential.

Learn more about the EdChoice voucher litigation

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William L. Phillis | Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding | 614.228.6540 ||

For years, reformers celebrated the grand success of Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. Politicians lauded it and poured money in. ECOT’s owner reciprocated by giving generously to politicians. Governor John Kasich gave the commencement address one year; Jeb Bush did another year.

But the state auditor (who was also a commencement speaker in 2015) checked the books and the whole ECOT edifice came crashing down. Ghost students, payments to companies owned by the founder, numerous ways to profit from the state’s generosity.

ECOT still owes Ohio more than $100 million.

Theodore Decker wrote in the Columbus Dispatch:

If there is such a thing as justice in this imperfect world, investigators in a federal building somewhere in Columbus are nudging ever close to it while digging into the billion-dollar boondoggle once known as the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.

ECOT, at one time the state’s largest online charter school, collapsed four years ago amid claims that it had taken millions in undeserved state aid.

Allegations of wrongdoing were traded by the school and state education department. Lawsuits were filed. And about 12,000 students were left in the lurch when the school imploded.

Then ECOT fell out of the public view, overtaken by a thick layer of general dirtiness at a time when political scandal was the norm from the White House to the Statehouse.

An audit just released this week, though, found that ECOT still owes the state more than $117 million.

Ohio Auditor Keith Faber on Tuesday said the shuttered school owes $106.6 million to the state Department of Education and another $10.6 million to the state Attorney General’s office.

As others have before them, Faber’s auditors found that ECOT wasn’t entitled to all the state money it received, including some in 2016 and 2017 and none in 2018.

ECOT as an entity may be gone, but for the sake of all taxpaying Ohioans, it had better not be forgotten.

Looking at the broad sweep of the ECOT swindle, it seems unfathomable that not a single indictment has been lodged against anyone in connection with its shady operations.

The main man behind ECOT was William Lager, a man with a host of Statehouse connections who founded the school in 2000. He also operated Altair Learning Management Inc and IQ Innovations LLC, which had lucrative contracts with ECOT to provide support services. After ECOT fell apart, Attorney General Dave Yost called Lager “the principal wrongdoer“ in the case.

The series of lethal blows to Lager’s empire began in 2016, when the Department of Education demanded repayment of $80 million.

But ECOT’s attendance numbers had been disputed by the state long before that, as far back as 2006. Going back even further, to 2001 and 2002, an audit determined that the state had been overpaying the school by millions.

That ECOT’s attendance numbers were disputed so early on in its existence – and how that problem regardless went unaddressed for so long by a string of governors, legislators and state officials – are looming questions that must be the stuff of any civic-minded federal prosecutor’s dreams.

And maybe, we can hope, they still are.

Yost, while still the state auditor, excoriated ECOT in 2018 and referred his findings to both county and federal prosecutors.

The feds are a secretive lot who have a habit of neither confirming nor denying the existence of any pending investigation, but there have been a few dropped clues through the years that a probe of ECOT is afoot.

One of the biggest came in 2019, when the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice subpoenaed nearly 20 years of ECOT’s campaign contribution records.

More than three years have passed since that development, but the feds also don’t have a habit of rushing their investigations.

Maybe they will wrap things up without uncovering a single instance of criminal behavior.

If you possess a lick of common sense, given what we know already, that outcome would boggle the mind.

But even if that is how an investigation concludes, prosecutors at the very least should know many more details about how ECOT and its principals were permitted to run amok for so long.

Considering Ohio’s taxpayers footed the bill, we have the right to know each and every one of them.

Denis Smith is a retired educator. After teaching for many years, he worked in the charter school office of the Ohio Department of Education. There, he learned about charter frauds and charter political influence. He wrote the following article in the Ohio Capital Journal.

He begins:

Like the famed Casablanca police captain Louis Renault, Ohio taxpayers were shocked, shocked to learn recently from the state auditor’s office that the notorious online charter school ECOT, which closed in 2018, owes the state $117 million. A “Finding for Recovery” posted last week on the auditor’s website provided the details.

The announcement by Auditor of State Keith Faber that the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, known familiarly as ECOT, owes the state such a huge amount for submitting inflated student enrollment data was met by a prolonged yawn among most of the state’s residents as well as media outlets.

Ohio residents were shocked, shocked at the news.


It seems that Ohioans have formed a natural immunity regarding any additional bad news about ECOT, known by some as “The School for Scandal,” with apologies to playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Back in 2017, one of my articles about “The School for Scandal” likened its longevity to the Energizer Bunny and described the different meanings people derived from seeing the online charter school’s acronym. Readers also chimed in with their own descriptors:

ECOT Effectively Cleaning Ohio’s Treasury

ECOTEndlessly Cheating Ohio’s Taxpayers

ECOTEnough Corruption for Ohio Taxpayers

ECOTEasy Cash on Tap

What does not make the ECOT saga unique is that it merely mirrors much of charterdom and affirms the industry’s image as a slow-motion train wreck. Sadly, a plethora of stories about issues surrounding The School for Scandal’s improprieties published years before its demise were not catalysts for action.

But if misery loves company, ECOT, which operated at full blast draining the state’s treasury for 18 years, is but one of more than 300 failed charter schools now closed that performed with near impunity as the result of a charter-friendly design built into the Ohio Revised Code. That section of the code favors private operators for the schools and limits the amount of transparency and accountability for these constructs that are provided about 150 exemptions in law that public schools themselves are required to meet.

That charter DNA design allowed ECOT’s founder, William Lager, to form privately owned management companies to operate the school and thus limit the amount of sunshine that could be cast by auditors and those charged to provide oversight for the school. That same design for charters, which are privately operated with public funds, allowed Lager to donate generously to some of his favorite Republican politicians, including state Sen. Andrew Brenner, who currently serves as chair of the Senate Education Committee.

Over the years of its operation, as seen by his donations to the Republican leadership, it was clear that Lager was buying friends in the legislature.

“Lager is, by far, Brenner’s largest individual contributor,” the Columbus Dispatch reported in May 2018, four months after the school’s closure. Brenner pocketed $27,564 in three payments from Lager from 2015-2017, but lamely said that the money didn’t come from the school. Moreover, Brenner, a champion of the private sector and privately operated but state funded charter schools, had no qualms about accepting money from Lager, whose fortune was built upon a cash cow fed by the public treasury.

Then there is the situation with Attorney General Dave Yost. From 2013-2015, Yost spoke at ECOT graduation ceremonies and heaped praise on its supposed place in the state’s educational sector. At one of those commencements, the then-Auditor of State presented ECOT with the Ohio Auditor of State Award with Distinction, meaning the school met the standard for a “clean audit.”

Clean audit? Refer to the previous box – ECOT = Effectively Cleaning Ohio’s Treasury. In retrospect, that acronym might be appropriate.

According to the state auditor’s website, the Ohio Department of Education “determined ECOT was not entitled to a portion of the funding it had received in fiscal years 2016 and 2017, as well as none of the funding received in fiscal 2018.”

ECOT critics might pose another question: what about from 2000 to 2015?

The current situation with ECOT reminds us of the classic Thomas Nast cartoon which first appeared 150 years ago:

What Are You Going to Do About It?

More than four years after the school’s closure, that question can’t be avoided.

When it comes to this charter’s audits, some things just don’t add up, particularly when the state auditor went out of his way to praise ECOT. Yet for years some individuals in state government, particularly in the department of education, had serious concerns about the reported enrollment figures for the school, well before the praise heaped on it by then-auditor Yost.

The Auditor of State’s website shows the honor conveyed in January 2016, less than two years before the school was shuttered.

“The school’s excellent record keeping has qualified for the Auditor of State Award with Distinction,” Yost’s AOS website boasted about the nefarious online charter school.

Those familiar with the jaded history of the failed charter, with its founder’s habit of distributing widespread campaign contributions to powerful Republican officeholders, are skeptical about seeing any accountability in this election year for the school’s submission of padded student enrollment figures.

Indeed, when allegations grew in 2016 about the school’s true enrollment, Lager’s contributions to the state Republican Party and officeholders continued unabated. Moreover, a mysterious website called 3rd Rail Politics emerged that year to defend the school as well as attack those who opposed charters in general and ECOT in particular.

If all things related to ECOT have moved at a snail’s pace – or not at all – 4 ½ years after the school’s closure, skepticism about action against Lager and his acolytes in state government, who provided favorable treatment for this generous Republican mega donor, is palpable among the populace.

In 2018, Louise Valentine, Brenner’s Democratic opponent for the Senate seat he currently holds, framed the issue with Brenner and his ties to Lager and the rest of the charter industry.

“It all started with the legislators who crafted the education policies that allowed for a complete lack of oversight for these so-called schools,” she said in a Tweet. “People like @andrewbrenner took $$$$ from ECOT and then defended their lack of accountability.”

There’s that word again – accountability. But there are some astute citizens who are speaking their minds about the influence of donors in the charter industry and with the ECOT situation.

The reader comments following one of the latest Columbus Dispatch articles detailing the auditor’s Findings for Recovery against ECOT contain several comments which are illustrative of the skepticism about eventual action against Lager:

Corrupt GOP general assembly aided and abetted this scam from the beginning.

Or this:

ECOT spent millions getting the GOP elected. No worries, Bill Lager.

As Ohio citizens begin to focus on issues for the fall elections, including gun violence and the wholesale proliferation of weapons, the growing threat from right-wing domestic terrorism, reproductive rights, environmental protection and regulation, along with voting rights, we need to add one more to this list of issues: ECOT – and the charter industry itself.

What are we going to do about it? What kind of controls are in place by law and regulation to ensure the lawful expenditure of public funds consumed by a rogue online charter school? For that matter, with more than 300 “dead” Ohio charter schools that are part of the detritus created by school privatization and educational deregulation, why in heaven is the legislature considering any kind of voucher legislation that will only add more stress to our fracturing society?

If we are supposed to remember in November, we should be alert as to what actions, if any, have been put in motion to do whatever it takes to recover the lion’s share of the $117 million owed to Ohioans. And if you’re skeptical, join the club.

ECOT was supposed to provide daily a minimum of five hours of “learning opportunities” for its students. If a number of our fellow citizens start contacting their elected representatives to ask them what they’re going to do about the ECOT debacle and more regulation of charters, perhaps that might serve as a preemptive measure to stop any further action about educational vouchers. Your call will no doubt provide a learning opportunity for Republicans in the legislature to realize that with ECOT and other charter scandals, enough is too much.

One more thing. Now that we know all of this, what are we going to do about it?