“What’s the difference between ECOT and a group of cats,” the joke goes. Answer: Those friendly furry felines don’t really have nine lives.
On the other hand, maybe there is something that our four-legged friends and the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow do have in common: An ability to jump and land on their feet. With such agility, maybe there is something about reincarnation after all.
It wasn’t that long ago when some of us had trouble with deciphering the ECOT acronym, sometimes confusing it with a similar acronym for a magical place in Florida that provides fantasy and adventure. But then with ECOT, there is no adventure, only fantasy – as in student enrollment figures. Indeed, those numbers have proven magical as well.
Almost since its founding, ECOT has shown an uncanny ability to jump, avoid trouble, and land on its feet. As the Columbus Dispatch correctly observed recently, ECOT’s creative – or is it voodoo – accounting can be traced back as far as 2001, when State Auditor Jim Petro determined that the school received $1.7 million more in state funds than it deserved, based on a review of its enrollment.
In his report covering ECOT’s operations for September and October 2000, Petro said the e-school “counted anyone who signed up, even if someone called in or the school called someone back. Cha-ching. You get paid for that.
That was 17 years ago, and all through its existence, ECOT is still getting paid for questionable attendance reporting practices. The Dispatch went on to add some interesting details.
For nearly two decades, this bilking of Ohio taxpayers has only worsened. State audits from 2000 through 2016 show just how rewarding this pattern has been for ECOT owner Bill Lager.
Although ECOT is organized as a nonprofit, it contracts with two Lager-owned, for-profit entities for management and software services. Since 2000, ECOT has paid $61.7 million to Altair Learning Management LLC and $131.1 million to IQ Innovations LLC. That’s a total of $192.8 million to the Lager-owned businesses, according to state audit reports.
The reputation the school has for its ability to inhale state funds for what are clearly inflated full-time equivalent (FTE) student enrollment figures is legendary. But like the Energizer Bunny, the ECOT vacuum cleaner, expertly designed to ingest the low-hanging fruit otherwise known as state aid, goes on and on.
Cha-ching, as the former Ohio state auditor put it.
Plunderbund readers might remember some of the names acronymically challenged folks thought were the proper names for the entity commonly called ECOT:
ECOT – Effectively Cleaning Ohio’s Treasury
ECOT – Endlessly Cheating Ohio’s Taxpayers
At the end of one article on this scandalous school (more on that word choice later), a Plunderbund reader added another possible title to fit the acronym:
ECOT – Enough Corruption for Ohio Taxpayers?
But wait, there’s more. One more:
ECOT – Easy Cash On Tap
Let’s look again about the use of the word enough when the subject is Ohio’s charter schools. As a case in point, what charter school observers are now witnessing is the stance of the Columbus Dispatch in its evolving attitude toward charters, and ECOT in particular. In its recent editorial, “ECOT Must Pay the Price,” the paper used such terms as “bilking,” “honest accounting,” “fidelity,” and “audacity” to paint a picture of a rapacious organization adept at obtaining undeserved taxpayer funds.
If the Dispatch’s patience with the politically-connected charter school behemoth is wearing thin, its readers also understand the extent of profligate spending and political muscle exhibited by this heavy hitter during its two decades of operation. Consider some recent examples:
• Television advertising and spending on commercials. ECOT has a strong presence on the airwaves, featuring students praising the school and Columbus Zoo Director Emeritus Jack Hanna endorsing its program.
• Communications and lobbying. No school district in the state can match the ability of ECOT to get its message out to the public and legislature. In particular, ECOT spokesman Neil Clark has filled up thousands of column inches in newspapers over the years with his pronouncements as well as airtime defending ECOT from its critics. One of his most famous observations was this gem:
“It’s interesting that the district schools, which make no mistake, are government-run schools, are complaining about their government money when they continually fail to do their jobs.”
• Social media. Social media continues to be a growing presence in any organization’s overall marketing and communications strategy. In January, Plunderbund published a piece called, “The Curious Website Called 3rd Rail Politics,” a site which seems to exist mostly to attack those who have criticized ECOT.
One of its favorite targets is GOP Senator and Senate Education Committee Chair Peggy Lehner, an ECOT critic who is the subject of frequent and scathing criticism on the 3rd Rail site. In addition, ECOT has a reliable cadre of trolls, junkyard dogs who pounce on and go after anyone who offers criticism of The Online Empire.
• Reliable politicians. Among a plethora of politicians that serve and protect ECOT, House Education Committee Chair Andrew Brenner and House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger are the best known. A sure way to confirm ECOT’s most favored status is to look up the school’s 2016 keynote speaker: Cliff Rosenberger.
Readers might also recall that Rosenberger famously traveled on an all-expense paid trip to Turkey, compliments of the Niagara Foundation, a Gulen-allied organization. Gulen runs a network of seventeen charter schools in Ohio under the Horizon Science and Noble Academy brands. These schools are part of the international Gulen Movement inspired by the Turkish exile and Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, with a total of 150 operating in the United States.
• More Spending. Speaking about commencement speakers, this year’s choice for ECOT brings a much higher profile than Rosenberger. Plunderbund writer Greg Mild revealed the online school’s keynoter was none other than Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson.
According to his Speaker’s Bureau, Carlson’s usual fee is $40,000 per address. We’ll never know how much Carlson was paid, because the private companies owned by Lager that manage and provide services to the school and expend public money like to keep things, er, private.
Can you imagine how Andrew Brenner, who once observed that public schools are a form of socialism, would have reacted if Olentangy Schools paid someone $40,000 to offer a few words to students and then fly home? Why that would be, um, socialism. As Neil Clark might say, it’s only government money. Yes, our money. Yours and mine.
Today, the continuing spectacle and circus that is otherwise known as ECOT is waging an epic battle with the Ohio Department of Education over the repayment of $60 million for the school’s submission of voodoo attendance figures. It was only last year that this observation about ECOT was made for Plunderbund readers:
“… sunlight hardly penetrates the netherworld of privately operated schools like ECOT, which engorge themselves on public funds and use them to hire legions of PR folks, lobbyists, attorneys, and then shamelessly produce commercials attacking the regulators (aka public servants) at ODE. Only a Goliath would choose to bite the very hand that feeds and maintains.”
As Ohio citizens await even more appeals that will consume even more taxpayer funds and are forced to endure more ECOT commercials produced with those same public funds, there is no doubt that the Goliath megaschool will continue to bite the very hand that has fed and maintained it for nearly twenty years.
Never mind that state policy could have included reimbursement for multiple years of FTE inflation to reflect the school’s serial history of voodoo accounting – first memorialized by former State Auditor Petro – that was and is enabled by Ohio’s voodoo charter school policy and by politicians like Brenner and Rosenberger.
But then maybe even ECOT has given voodoo a bad name.
So after being a witness, lo these many years, of this too-long-running soap opera called ECOT, I was reminded of the title of a play, “The School for Scandal,” from an English Literature class years ago. Maybe that would be a great title for a new book about the cash machine that resembles the Energizer Bunny.
The School for Scandal keeps going and going and going. Cha-ching. And so it goes.
POSTSCRIPT: At the time this article was submitted, the Columbus Dispatch reported that ECOT was making plans to cut a considerable number of its staff members in the next few weeks. According to the ECOT spokesman, the layoffs will involve “ teachers, administrators and support staff.” There was no mention about how the cutbacks will curtail its marketing, communications, political engagement and lobbying efforts, the areas this article examined in some detail.
Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office. He writes about education issues as well as politics and constitutional reform.