Gov. John Kasich has offered no apologies for a billion dollar per year for-profit charter school system that over five years of his administration has been downgraded to national joke status.
The Washington Post recently dubbed Ohio’s for-profit charter school system a “mess,” even as Kasich says his record in Ohio makes him the best Republican candidate for president.
Documents including emails recovered through requests for public records provided more clarity Wednesday morning on the large sums of taxpayer dollars involved and the web of state players who helped orchestrate a scheme to milk taxpayers of millions that went directly into the coffers of William Lager, owner of Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow for-profit charter schools and affiliated companies that contracted with ECOT for management and other services.
ProgressOhio, a left-leaning advocacy group headquartered in Columbus, told reporters today that it has offered its assistance to the Ohio Inspector General to help unravel what could be viewed as a quid pro quo between the Kasich Administration and Lager, that documents presented today made a solid case was happening.
Political leaders close to Lager steered at least $2.7 million in public money to help refurbish IQ Innovations, a distance learning platform that Ohio tapped to provide online textbooks and other educational materials used by K-12 schools, ProgressOhio [PO] said. PO Executive Director Sandy Theis escorted media along a trail that started with Gov. Kasich’s first state budget in 2011 that mandated a digital clearinghouse—called iLeanOhio, which would find a home at The Ohio State University. The curious twist about this arrangement, that Theis pointed to, is that even though it was located at OSU, the Chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents was authorized to choose IQ as its outside vendor.
“This resulted in a highly unusual arrangement,” Theis told reporters, noting that even though “Ohio taxpayers paid millions to help IQ, a private firm, build a sophisticated technology platform, the state received zero ownership interest in it.” Despite Ohio’s generosity, IQ consistently failed to deliver on the system’s promised functionality, records PO offered reporters showed.
Former Lager consultant John Conley, appointed by the Kasich administration as Vice Chancellor of Educational Technology for the Board of Regents, was tasked with overseeing the project. Based on its research, including public records, PO said “Conley helped keep public money flowing to IQ Innovations and he helped sideline whistleblowers who tried to hold IQ accountable.”
According to research initiated by PO and Theis, from 2010 to 2015, Lager, employees of his charter-related companies and his long-time lobbyist, Bob Klaffky, have contributed more than $1.5 million to campaign accounts for John Kasich, state legislators and other GOP candidates and committees that support them. “The big winners include Republican leaders in the Ohio House and state Senate. Before retiring as Ohio House Speaker, Bill Batchelder received $46,200; new Speaker Cliff Rosenberger received $47,343. And as Kasich first campaign for governor heated up in 2010, IQ Innovations gave the Republican Governors Association two contributions totaling $153,649. Batchelder’s firm now lobbies for Lager’s businesses.” PO notes.
In its investigation, PO said it learned that Ohio’s Office of Inspector General had launched an investigation following receipt of a related whistleblower complaint. “We welcome the IG’s interest in this matter and are willing to provide his office with any information we have that could be helpful,” Theis wrote.
Records show that mid-level OSU employees responsible for trying to hold IQ accountable grew increasingly frustrated, with many of the more persistent critics uninvited from important meetings, disciplined or simply re-organized out of their jobs. Three of the employees filed 2014 whistleblower complaints with OSU that singled out Conley among the main offenders. OSU found the whistleblowers provided “credible information of significant retaliation,” but could not make a final determination, saying they lacked jurisdiction to interview Conley or other Board of Regents employees. The report states that they did not try to interview them. Conley resigned before the investigation concluded. Conley previously worked for Lager.
OSU spokesman Chris Davey told PO the university is fully cooperating with the IG’s probe. PO said that based on state audits, Ohio taxpayers have paid IQ Innovations $65,611,111 for curriculum services for ECOT students since 2012.
OSU’s internal investigation was finalized in May 2014 but did not make news until September 2015, when Ohio’s biggest blog, Plunderbund, wrote about it and reported that OSU found the whistleblowers’ allegations credible but did not reach a final determination.
Theis’ research shows Ohio taxpayers have paid at least $5 million to help with the IQ platform. Her subsequent tally includes $1.2 million in “enhancements,’ $1.6 million for the eTextbook pilot along with many hours of staff time devoted to trying improve its functionality, plus the cost of the internal probe and assorted other costs.
John Kasich has avoided answering directly why Ohio has such an “education mess.” He has also evaded, during more than 106 town hall meetings in New Hampshire and dozen more since then in other states, why the husband of his campaign manager committed fraud, as some allege he did, when he falsified for-profit charter school data the helped ECOT and other sponsors tap state funding when they should have been cut off. The data David Hansen scrubbed to make for-profit charter performance look better was then used to apply for funding from the Federal Department of Education. Ohio won an awarded from the Obama Administration for $71 million, but those funds are frozen pending further investigations.
Dr. Richard Ross, hand-picked by John Kasich to run ODE, resigned following the admission by Hansen, husband to Beth Hansen, Kasich presidential campaign manager, that he rigged the data. Hansen remains free but in the shadows as neither the Ohio Inspector General or the Franklin County Prosecutor or any other authority has pursued him for violating state or federal laws.