Deciding the money isn’t worth it, the Ohio Republican Party is returning $76,000 in campaign donations to Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow founder Bill Lager and one of his top associates.

The lede in the Columbus Dispatch story documents yet another chapter in the saga of ECOT, the notorious online charter school that has provided more than $2 million to the state GOP over the years. Previously, it had been reported that ECOT’s founder, William Lager, along with another associate, had donated $122,000 to state party coffers in just the last six months, at the very time the school was being challenged by the Ohio Department of Education to return $60 million to the state as the result of overpayments caused by inflated enrollment figures.

At week’s end, a Dispatch editorial, “ECOT’s No Good. Really Bad Week,” provided biting commentary on the floundering charter school giant, flailing in the rising water, trying yet again to buy some friends.

But for Republicans to return donations from charter school operators must mean that the Dark Side and its ever abundant cash has become, at long last, radioactive.

The importance of money to Republicans can’t be overestimated. In the same series of revelatory articles that were published in the Dispatch last week, Lager was quoted as telling Chandra Filichia, a Waffle House waitress who later became one of his employees, “It’s not about the (expletive) kids, Chandra; it’ s about the money.”

While the scrambling by the Ohio GOP to return campaign contributions to ECOT and Lager hasn’t generated too much publicity yet, one legislator has maintained for some time that the school is not the proper repository for the returned funds.

State Rep. Teresa Fedor, a Toledo Democrat, issued a press release in May that was a direct rebuke to the Republicans:

ECOT and other charter schools have been fleecing taxpayers for years while GOP lawmakers turned a blind eye speaking at graduation ceremonies and building their campaign coffers on the broken promises to families, taxpayers – and most importantly – our children.

With sixty-million dollars essentially being stolen from taxpayers, today’s ruling draws into question the massive amounts of cash GOP lawmakers have accepted from ECOT over the years. I am calling on GOP lawmakers to tally up and return all ECOT campaign donations in a check written to the state from their campaign.

The observations of Fedor reminded me of a visit I made to a member of the legislature about four years ago. My meeting was for the purpose of detailing some of the most egregious practices of charter schools and proposing legislative fixes.

During our meeting, as the legislator went down the list of my charter school reform proposals, he nodded his head in agreement until he got near the end of my list.

“This will never happen,” he said.

That one proposal he thought would never happen was an outright ban on political contributions by charter schools and their management companies to state political parties and candidates, as they use public funds to craft state law to their liking, including more than 150 exemptions from the educational requirements provided in Section 3314 of the Ohio Revised Code.

Unless we’re terribly naïve about the corrupt, indeed corrosive effects of money on the legislature, the great Swedish pop group Abba said it best: Money, money, money/Always sunny/In the rich man’s world.

But with ECOT in seeming eclipse, perhaps things right now aren’t sunny in that rich man’s charter world. Indeed, the upcoming solar eclipse might in some way serve as a metaphor for the twilight of ECOT, and, hopefully, the mysterious, gloomy, overcast charterworld, where for nearly 20 years, anything goes.

As we learn more and more about contributions from William Lager and his associates to Republican organizations as another attempt to buy friends, there is something about the last part of Teresa Fedor’s press release that might warrant another look for the sound advice it offers:

If we refuse to fully hold Ohio’s failed charter school experiment accountable through tougher laws and standards, lawmakers should at minimum hold themselves accountable for being complicit in the theft of tax dollars from our taxpayers. That starts with doing the right thing, and returning campaign donations to the state.

Yes, as William Lager famously said, “It’s not about the (expletive) kids, Chandra; it’ s about the money.”

Many Republicans think of taxation as theft. We need to educate the sanest members of that tribe to the fact that receiving taxpayer funds, er, campaign contributions, derived from state charter school payments and conveying these funds to sympathetic Republican politicians, eager to do charterworld bidding, might be nothing less than double theft. Worse yet, Republican officeholders are complicit in this scheme that harms taxpayers.

Teresa Fedor has it right. Let’s start doing the right thing. Get the money out.

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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.

 

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