Is Ohio’s Biggest Online School Too Big to Fail?


Ohio’s largest provider of online education is refusing to open its records to the state entity charged with overseeing the massive program. And even the Republican state politicians that have for years colluded to maintain the mediocre Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow are breaking ranks over its refusal to comply.

At issue are attendance records for the embattled charter school – statistics expected to show the average ECOT student is logged on and receiving instruction for barely one hour per week. (The minimum yearly total set by the Ohio Department of Education is 920 hours per academic year.)

This is not the first time the publically-funded ECOT has courted negative public scrutiny with its dubious practices and poor outcomes. Since its inception in 2000, founder William “Bill” Lager has lavished upon GOP legislators hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars – quid pro quo contributions oddly synched with ODE inquiries and attempts to tighten up some of the loosest charter school regulations in the nation.

But Lager and the ECOT executive team may have jumped the shark in July by refusing to disclose such rudimentary information as students’ time on task – an opinion shared by the Franklin County judge that denied the school’s petition to keep the data sealed. (ECOT has filed a second lawsuit, citing a 2003 stipulation allowing it to withhold those figures during audits. That suit is still pending at deadline.)

Statehouse Republicans registered surprise at the ruling. Asked for an on-the-record response during the first night of his party’s national convention, House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger (who addressed ECOT’s 2016 graduates in June) offered a disjointed statement: “… this is not just about ECOT. There are a lot of other schools that are involved with this attendance issue that we’ve been talking about that they need to kind of take a little bit of a step back and look at.”

Fortunately for ECOT there was no such hesitation on the part of the Ohio Coalition for Quality Education. Just hours after news of the decision went viral, the advocacy group began papering delegates to the Republican National Convention with a memo declaring “school choice is under attack in Ohio”.

The conservative-leaning coalition framed the controversy in predictably partisan, boogeyman terms: “In the Ohio Department of Education – the last bastion of Democrat, pro-union thinking in state government – Democrats are trying to eliminate a core principle of Republican philosophy: school choice.”

This despite the inconvenient fact not a single Democrat holds a statewide office and both houses are firmly under GOP control.

Also missing from the conservative narrative about public charters under liberal siege is the very large pot of money ECOT stands to lose were the legal system to hold it to account. Based on a similar case involving one of ECOT’s smaller competitors, public-funded charters caught flaunting or finagling attendance records can expect to lose up to 80% of their total taxpayer monies – a staggering percentage when taking into account the $106 million ECOT receives from the state’s coffers.

ECOT Superintendent Rick Teeters has been the exception to the rule in terms of his school’s dependence on state funds, warning in a July 7 press release that if ECOT loses its underwriting it will be forced to close. Adding that as ECOT goes, so goes Ohio’s online education.

State Democrats have called on the department to put a hold on ECOT’s revenue stream until the legalities have run their course. And unexpected help has come their way from sources such as Ohio School Board President Tom Gunlock, who when asked about the possibility of ECOT’s closing gave a clear if terse reply: “So be it … We’re supposed to verify that all the students are in attendance that are supposed to be in attendance.”

At the crux of the matter is a semi-privatized, semi-corporatized industry that has flourished by way of a hands-off series of Republican legislatures. It will be a major victory if the fates conspire and ECOT goes transparent for good. What better lesson for its 15,000 students than honesty is the best policy?

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister and substance abuse counselor living in Blacksburg, Va. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2016

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