Something strange is going on at the Ohio Statehouse.
The week’s headlines were dominated by the story of freshman Republican State Representative Wes Goodman, whose habit of chatting up young men online was revealed after his abrupt resignation over sex acts in his office. We’ll set aside the details of that story and let Wes and his wife work out their issues in private. The interesting part of the story is how it is being pushed from the sidelines and why.
ECOT, Ohio’s Scammiest Charter School
First, a quick review of the recent history of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), the state’s largest online charter school. ECOT is currently in a battle for its survival with the Ohio Department of Education over tens of millions of annual payments for what the State says are phantom students. The school has no records to show that thousands of students actually engage in any learning activities. The issue is working its way through the courts, but if the school loses its appeals and the legislature doesn’t bail it out, it says it will be forced to close.
This is a major twist of fate for ECOT’s founder, Bill Lager, whose generosity in giving to the campaigns of powerful Republican lawmakers is legendary. Over a decade, Lager and his affiliated businesses have contributed more than $2 million to Ohio Republican campaigns. Under previous legislative leadership (including House Speakers Householder, Husted and Batchelder), Lager was able to get bills passed to keep the gravy train of taxpayer money flowing. But since Cliff Rosenberger took over as House Speaker in 2015, bills favorable to ECOT have gone nowhere. Ultimately, it’s up to legislative leaders to decide which bills move forward, which brings us to what appears to be a concerted effort to take down Speaker Rosenberger.ECOT Gets a New Mouthpiece: 3rd Rail Politics
In the summer of 2016, when ECOT was in a multi-front PR war to stay in business, a new blog emerged that seemed single-handedly focused on advancing ECOT’s message and questioning its legislative opponents. As a private business, 3rd Rail Politics will not disclose its funding sources, but ECOT’s fingerprints all over it. In addition to having an editorial slant that is wholly aligned with ECOT’s, 3rd Rail also shares a business address with two Lager-affiliated businesses, is edited by a former ECOT board member, and frequently uses ECOT’s spokesperson, Republican lobbyist Neil Clark, as a source. Among the blog’s early targets were Republican Senator Peggy Lehner, who chairs the powerful Senate Education committee, where legislation to rein in unaccountable charter schools has seen recent success.
House Speaker Rosenberger Under Fire
More recently, 3rd Rail has set its sights on Speaker Rosenberger. Throughout the fall, 3rd Rail Politics posted a series of articles suggesting Rosenberger is “lavishly” spending Republican House caucus funds on purposes unrelated to election campaigns. Republican House members in tough reelection races rely on these funds to pay for campaign materials and advertising. Understandably, caucus members–who will be voting for the next Speaker–might be upset if that money is misspent.
The blog is now working hard to suggest that Speaker Rosenberger knew about Wes Goodman’s inappropriate targeting of young men and covered it up. It’s worth noting that somehow emails about Goodman’s past behavior landed in the hands of the Washington Post before Speaker Rosenberger says he found out. Washington Post reporters don’t routinely participate in the Statehouse rumor mill. Someone sent them those emails in an effort to drive this story. We’re not saying it was 3rd Rail Politics, but they clearly knew this story was coming.
When the legislature convenes in January of 2019, Rosenberger will no longer be in the legislature and a new Speaker will be chosen by its Republican members. 3rd Rail Politics appears to be attempting to accelerate that process. Why? Would ECOT benefit from new leadership to get it out of its current existential legal jam?
There is a lot of detail and backstory that we’re leaving out for the sake of brevity. But the basic question is this: is a blog aligned with an embattled charter school engaging in a rumor-mongering public intimidation campaign to take out the Speaker and put someone more favorable to their cause in his place?
We’ll revisit this story and as always, our inbox is open (and anonymous) if you have insights to share.