It looks like the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow is in fact yesterday’s school.

A long nightmare lasting nearly two decades appears to be over. ECOT, the notorious online charter school, has been suspended by its sponsor and is shutting down, although the appointment of a special master will delay the liquidation of its assets in the short term.

When the official last rites for ECOT are concluded, the online school’s remnants will be piled on top of the rest of the other charter school rubble, a junkyard contained in a swamp filled with the carcasses of 260 shuttered schools that have crashed and burned since the beginning of the misguided charterworld experiment.

Yet there is no joy in Mudville, or anyplace in between, with the closing of this troubled enterprise. Sadly, the nightmare for 12,000 students and their families, coupled with the scramble to find them another school, is just beginning. The same is true for about 1,000 teachers and other personnel, left in the cold mid-year, collateral damage from the failure of this strange enterprise.

Those following the ECOT saga that has unfolded during the last two years have been told about a continuing story of voodoo accounting when it comes to state funds, voodoo math when determining the actual number of students, and everything else voodoo befitting of the voodoo public policy that created the charter school industry.

But in the last week, the narrative about the former online behemoth has shifted dramatically. Now, we’re starting to hear some noise about calling out those who bear responsibility for this debacle, those who have aided and abetted this billion dollar grab from the state treasury.

The new narrative, appropriately enough, focuses on the main character and his responsibility in the mess engulfing thousands of students and their families in the middle of the academic year.

William Lager, the founder of ECOT and head of both Altair Learning, the company that manages the school and IQ Innovations, the firm which provides the software used by students, was put on notice by State Auditor Dave Yost about his potential liability in the repayment of funds owed the state for inflated student enrollment. In an interview with the Columbus Dispatch, Yost offered this interesting view on the ECOT mess:

“The idea is you form these corporations in order to limit the liability that stems from doing business,” Yost said, responding to questions from the Dispatch. “The question is, ‘What do you do when someone deliberately uses it as a tool, knowing something is amiss’?

Yost went on in musing about the next steps for the state:

A very significant portion of the money that passed through ECOT ended up with Bill Lager. The Supreme Court ruling “allows at least the potential for him to be personally liable for it.”

In the same Dispatch article, Attorney General hopeful Steven Dettelbach, a former U.S. Attorney, made a similar call for Lager to be held accountable for some repayment to the state. “There clearly, in this case, are facts that seem on their face to indicate there was misrepresentation, deceit and fraud,” he said.

When you have the implosion of one of the largest charter schools in the country in an election year, a perfect storm of vitriol and blame is the byproduct. The Dispatch coverage included this statement from Democratic State Auditor candidate Zach Space:

(T)he self-interested politicians who aided and abetted this slow-motion train wreck for more than a decade must now be held accountable. . . Politicians who eagerly did ECOT’s bidding as long as founder Bill Lager handed out campaign checks — all the while knowing that the ‘school’ was an abject failure — are now, unsurprisingly, silent. These individuals do a disservice to the concept of public service, and I am calling on every politician who took contributions from Bill Lager and other ECOT executives to donate every cent back to Ohio public schools, where it belongs.

That same Dispatch article found Dettelbach in agreement with Space’s approach.

. . . any politician still in office who took money from ECOT should return those donations immediately. A mechanism should be set up to get that money back to where it came from, the state education system, and dedicated to helping the families and students who now face an uncertain transition thanks to the politicians’ lack of leadership.

Indeed, it must be an election year, with former ECOT commencement speaker Dave Yost saying that the return of some funds should be expected from Lager’s companies. Moreover, Space and Dettelbach want those politicians who have aided this empire to also return the monies donated by Lager back to the state treasury so they can be distributed to the school districts, where they were appropriated in the first place without the consent of the resident voters.

The Sunday, January 21 edition of the Dispatch will only fuel the demand for some type of repayment to the state. In a page one story, the paper again informed readers about the luxurious residences that were purchased by Lager in the last several years, including “a $433,500 waterfront home on Senecaville Lake in Noble County; a $995,000 house in Upper Arlington; a $3.7 million house in Key West, Florida, with a pool and two-story cabana.”

In the meantime, Yost, who has spoken three times at ECOT commencements, must now be persona non grata at ECOT, where his photo has mysteriously disappeared from the lobby of the online school.

As a service to our faithful readers, Plunderbund wants to assist the public in seeking an accounting from those officeholders who have pocketed ECOT money over the years and ignored the school’s operational issues, supporting what may be the appearance of “misrepresentation, deceit, and fraud,” as Dettelbach viewed the situation. For starters, we highlight three Republican legislators who took ample sums of once public funds that were received by Lager’s enterprise and then converted into campaign contributions.

Representative Andrew Brenner is the Chair of the House Education Committee. According to the website Vote Smart, ECOT’s William Lager was his largest campaign contributor during the last election cycle. [Type in the name of your favorite politician at this website and treat yourself to a treasure trove of information you’ll receive about politicians and the source of their campaign finances.]

Image from Vote Smart: https://votesmart.org/candidate/campaign-finance/120481/andrew-brenner#.WmTUn0xFyUk

Several years ago, Brenner famously called public education “socialism” but still wound up being appointed chair of the committee that seeks to guide state policy and oversight for education. In light of the ECOT debacle, Plunderbund encourages Brennner to return these funds so they can be used by cash-starved public school districts that serve all students, not just the cherry-picked ones favored by Brenner’s charter school benefactors. Brenner, who is term-limited, has announced his candidacy for an Ohio Senate seat, and his long-standing ties to ECOT, Lager, indeed the scandal-prone charter school industry, are expected to be a campaign issue. And we haven’t even mentioned the irony of the House Education Committee chair being robustly pro-charter and anti-public education. Hmm, that sounds exactly like U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the first to hold that office who philosophically doesn’t even believe in public education.

One would think that Brenner would be eager to dispose of that socialist-tainted money which otherwise might have been received by those socialist public school districts. He now has an opportunity to do the right thing. No one would ever accuse Brenner of being a socialist if he decided to do the right thing and return Lager’s years of campaign contributions to the state treasury.

Representative Keith Faber, like most Republicans, has been a favorite of the charter lobby for some time. By serving in both the House and Senate, where he served as President, Faber enjoys a wider base than he would have by serving in a House district. He is now a candidate for State Auditor, the post currently held by Dave Yost, who is now a candidate for Attorney General.

Image from Vote Smart: https://votesmart.org/candidate/campaign-finance/45424/keith-faber#.WmTVGkxFyUk

Faber’s website lists some of his key issues as improving government accountability and transparency, cutting regulation and red tape, and putting a break on wasteful spending. Skeptics of the charter school industry would say that yes, charter schools are in great need of more government accountability and transparency, and such increased accountability would put a break on their wasteful spending.

Advice for any Auditor candidate: ECOT is the perfect example of the need for more regulation, not less. A candidate for Auditor – regardless of party – campaigning for less red tape (read: regulations) is a non-starter, in light of a history of financial scandals by these loosely-regulated enterprises.

The Vote Smart website shows that David L. Brennan, founder of the White Hat Management charter school operation, and the omnipresent William Lager, are some of the top contributors to Faber. Democrats are no doubt poised to inform the public about how a candidate for Auditor, whose top contributors are charter school moguls, might be reluctant in assuming an aggressive stance for providing appropriate fiscal oversight for the troubled and scandal-prone charter school industry.

Representative Cliff Rosenberger is Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives. Since his position involves statewide responsibilities, his campaign donors represent a broader field than those exhibited by Brenner or Faber. This graphic shows that two of Rosenberger’s leading contributors are, surprise, David L. Brennan, and, of course, ECOT’s William Lager. Brennan, like the online school’s Lager, has also done very well in charterworld, and his schools have also been the center of controversy for years due to their low performance.

Image from Vote Smart: https://votesmart.org/candidate/campaign-finance/120604/cliff-rosenberger#.WmTVeUxFyUk

Rosenberger has additional ties to the charter school industry. A few years ago, it was revealed that he received an all-expenses paid trip to Turkey and was one of three Ohio legislators to accept free travel that was arranged by the Niagara Foundation, which is allied to Concept Schools, a charter school management company which has offices in Chicago. Concept runs a national chain of charter schools that are linked to the exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. According to a number of news reports spanning several years, 19 of these schools, three of them in Ohio, have been the subject of Federal Bureau of Investigation raids.

Next Steps: Drain the Swamp! Oversight, Accountability and the Return of Campaign Donations From Charter Operators

Representative Teresa Fedor, a Toledo Democrat and longtime critic of the charter school industry, has been a keen observer of the assault on public education. She issued issued this statement about ECOT:

The unchecked charter school experiment has gone on long enough. Lessons learned, we must review the real successes and failures of this experiment. It is time for real oversight of their performance and implement real penalties for charter schools that are not living up to their charters. . . Let’s create a real oversight effort immediately.

As ECOT begins its descent into the malodorous charter school swamp, a morass that grew to its present size in part through more than $1 million in donations by Lager to Ohio Republicans since 2010, it is indeed time for Republicans to drain this swamp, something their leader, Donald Trump, pledged to do in draining what he said was a huge swamp in Washington. The best way to proceed would be for Brenner, Faber, Rosenberger and others to return all of their campaign donations received from charter school operators as an act of good faith in this election year.

In the meantime, we can thank these three GOP politicians and others in the Republican caucus for enabling the continued operation of ECOT, an enterprise that collected more than $1 billion in public funds over its lifetime but poorly served those who were in need of an adequate education.

In the newest Dispatch ECOT article, Sarah Biehl of the Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio offered this perspective in 2016.

My question is: Who’s benefiting here? Are children benefiting? Are these policies in place because they are the thing that is going to benefit children?
Or are they in place because they are really benefiting someone else?

We have known the answer to Biehl’s question for years. The next question is: what are we going to do about it?

It’s past time for action in dealing with Ohio’s charter school mess and for political donations sent to legislators and state officials derived from public funds to be returned to the state treasury. ECOT for one has shown that state funds sent to for-profit “educational “management enterprises somehow assist the real estate business in the Florida Keys.

Assuming that no action will be taken by all of the officeholders responsible for this mess, Ohioans need to be prepared to vote out every one of them in November. Yes, every one of them. Let’s all start our homework in identifying every one of the enablers of an enterprise that had profit, not education, as its core value.

 

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