ECOT Fallout: Missing Students, Returned Donations, Criminal Accusations

By Benjamin Herold — July 10, 2018 3 min read
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The fallout from the mid-year closure of Ohio’s largest full-time online charter school continues, with other e-schools struggling to navigate a massive influx of displaced students, thousands of students unaccounted for, and fights over money and liability dragging into the summer.

The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow shuttered its doors in January amid a protracted dispute with the Ohio Department of Education over student attendance and funding. The state is demanding repayment of roughly $80 million, money it says ECOT owes after years of over-reporting student attendance. The closure forced about 12,000 students to find a new school.

Following is a roundup of key recent headlines detailing the ripple effects of the closure:

Ohio Unsure of Status of 2,300 Students from Closed E-School(Associated Press, 7.5.18)

About 20 percent of the students who were enrolled at the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow when it shut down are not currently re-enrolled at another school or otherwise accounted for, according to data obtained by the Associated Press.

Roughly 1,000 of those students are 18 or older and are thus not required by state law to attend school, according to the report.

Peggy Lehner, who chairs the Ohio state senate’s education committee, told the AP that the problem highlights the ongoing challenge of monitoring the e-school sector.

“If we’re paying to educate kids, then we should both know where they are and if they’re getting educated, and if they aren’t then there’s a real problem,” Lehner said.

Bill Protecting E-School Heads to Governor(Toledo Blade, 6.27.18)

After enrolling an estimated 4,200 ECOT students, another for-profit cyber charter, the Ohio Virtual Academy, convinced state lawmakers to grant it an exception temporarily shielding it from being held accountable for potentially poor academic performance by the transferring students. Their school should not be punished for taking on large numbers of ECOT students, Ohio Virtual Academy officials argued.

In the run-up to the vote, the Toledo Blade reported that the amendment was offered by a lobbyist for K12, Inc., which manages the Ohio Virtual Academy and is the largest for-profit operator of online charter schools in the country. After the provision was approved the state House, the Blade reported that five Ohio schools would likely benefit from its “safe harbor” provision.

The move prompted criticism from e-school skeptics.

“If Ohio Virtual is able to get away with not having these ECOT students on their books while they acclimate from their old school, why aren’t public schools getting the same consideration?” Brianne Kramer, a former employee of the school and current assistant professor at Southern Utah University, told the Blade.

With Notable Exceptions, Politicians Scurry to Give Up ECOT Donations(Columbus Dispatch, 5.11.18)

ECOT founder Bill Lager and his associates made political contributions totaling $2.5 million over several years, mostly to Republican candidates and causes, the Dispatch reported.

Some candidates and groups have returned the money. The Ohio Republican Party, for example, returned $76,000 in contributions from Lager and an associate, according to the Dispatch.

Others, including attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Mike DeWine, gave the money they had received from ECOT to education-related charities.

Auditor on ECOT School Case: ‘I Believe This May Rise to a Criminal Act’(WHIO-TV, 5.10.18)

State auditor Dave Yost said ECOT officials deliberately misled state education officials by not providing the best available information about student attendance.

“Our auditors documented that ECOT officials had the ability to provide honest, accurate information to the state and they chose not to,” Yost said in a press release. “By withholding information, ECOT misled state regulators at the Department of Education, and ECOT was paid based on that information. I believe this may rise to a criminal act.”

Yost, a Republican running for state attorney general, had previously awarded the school awards for good bookkeeping (in 2014 and 2016), according to WHIO-TV. He also appeared as a guest speaker at ECOT graduations in 2014 and 2015.

Photo: William Lager, center, founder of Ohio’s largest online charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), speaks to hundreds of supporters on May 9 during a rally outside the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio.--Julie Carr Smyth/ AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.