Tuesday, July 19, 2016

In Worst Case Scenario, ECOT Could Still Pay 602 of its 607 Teachers

Last week, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow's Superintendent, Rick Teeters, wrote that if the Ohio Department of Education was able to actually determine how many kids ECOT was actually educating, ECOT would be forced to close. This was based on a preliminary department review that showed the vast majority of ECOT students were only logged onto their computers for 1 of the required 5 hours of the learning day.

Trouble is, Ohio pays ECOT so much money that even if this ratio held true and ECOT lost 80% of its funding, the school (which doesn't have to pay for buses, custodians, lunch ladies, capital outlays like heating and cooling, or building security) would still have enough to pay all but 5 of its 607 teachers.

Last year, ECOT received $108,610,808 in total state funding. According to the most recent state report available, ECOT had 607 teachers who averaged a $36,089 a year salary. To pay their teachers, ECOT needs $21,906,203 a year. Cutting their state funding by 80% leaves ECOT with $21,722,162. That would leave the school $183,861 short for their teachers, which means all but 5 of their teachers could still be paid with the state money.

However, ECOT still receives $12.5 million in federal funding. So they would still be able to have a significant amount of total funding left over for those five teachers with a handsome profit to boot.

Back for a moment to ECOT's huge state funding haul. If ECOT gave every one of its 15,000 kids a new, $2,000 laptop every year, it would still have enough money left over after paying its teachers to clear nearly 50% profit.

So does this mean that ECOT will close if they get their funding cut? Who knows.

What it does mean is we pay a lot of money to a school that can't graduate even 4 of 10 students and generate more dropouts than any school in the nation.

And it also means this: Where is all of ECOT's money going, if not to the kids it purportedly claims to educate?

Remember this is your money and mine. We the taxpayers and our kids must have a proper accounting for ECOT's expenditure of our hard-earned money.

Ohio Pro-Charter Group: Democrats, not Bipartisan Bill, are ECOT's Problem

For years, I have said the problem with Ohio's charter schools has been the politics that have driven so much of the debate. That all started to change with the overwhelmingly bipartisan passage of House Bill 2 last year, which put the idea of quality school choice at the center of the charter school movement here for the first time.

But then, the poster child for Ohio's political, ridiculed past, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow -- whose founder, William Lager, has given more than $1.2 million to mostly Republican politicians -- started coming under the microscope from House Bill 2's much tougher regulations.

And that has led to the Last Stand for the Poor Performing Charter School Movement in Ohio, with ECOT suing to keep the Ohio Department of Education from determininig whether paying the school more than $108 million was justified based on how many kids actually learned there. Instead, ECOT wants to be paid based simply on whether they offered curricula to kids. The school is now daring ODE to subpoena the records that could determine that.

And now, the Ohio Coalition for Quality Education -- the state's ironically named and most egregious defender of poor-performing charter schools  (the last dodo, if you will) -- slipped a letter under the doors of delegates to the Republican National Convention that is so brazenly political I wonder if they put their tax-exempt status in jeopardy.

In the letter, OCQE's President (and only staffer other than his wife, as far as I can tell) Ron Adler calls the Republican sweep in 2010 "our" victory. He blames sneaky Democratic bureaucrats at ODE for ECOT's problems, forgetting that the problem is the bill passed by nearly every Republican is the root of ECOT's newfound accountability issues.

But perhaps the most outrageous thing about it all is it rips open the wound that had begun to heal around the idea that charter schools should offer quality school options for kids and parents, not worse ones, of which ECOT is clearly the most prominent example.

Ohio's has worked hard to rid itself of the national ridicule and scorn that pro-charter school advocates have heaped upon it now for years. I would hope that folks on all sides of the aisle would see this letter for what it is -- the T-Rex's final roar before the asteroid finally makes the Earth habitable for sentient beings.

We've come too far to return to past battles that got us nothing except a few people rich and a lot of kids poorly educated. I call on policy makers on all sides of the political aisle to swiftly condemn this sad, last gasp of a movement that made Ohio a national mockery.

And we must do that now.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Latest ECOT Taxpayer Outrage: School Won't Turn Over Public Records.

The nation's largest for-profit charter school won't turn over public records to the state agency charged with holding them accountable. And they're doing it with the blessing of the Ohio General Assembly.

In what can only be called a wickedly brazen flexing of political muscle, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow -- stinging perhaps from its defeat earlier this week in court -- has refused to turn over public records to the Ohio Department of Education.

And it appears that Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger and his newest front man, State Rep. Kirk Schuring, R-Canton, thinks it's ODE's problem, not ECOT's.

I swear.
"I told them I was disappointed that they wouldn’t delay just one week to allow me to at least see if there was a way to come to some kind of reasonable agreement
The "them" Schuring is referring to is ODE, not ECOT. So Schuring -- with whom I served in the General Assembly and always seemed a pretty reasonable guy -- is disappointed that ODE is trying to determine whether his constituents' tax dollars were improperly spent in a school that received $108 million last year. That's about $10 for every Ohioan.

ODE has decided to give ECOT another two weeks to come up with its record that, again, are public.

As for the ECOT argument that this is unfair or something, I refer you to what ODE's lawyers wrote earlier this week about what ECOT's own truancy policy states:

"...it is crucial that the student logs in, checks e-mail and participates in coursework regularly (25 hours per week minimum) each week in order to avoid consequences."

ODE has been trying to determine just how often kids actually participated in online coursework since February. Yet ECOT still stalls. Why can they get away with this? Imagine if Columbus City Schools tried this same, 6-month stalling tactic during their scandal.

I think the last few paragraphs of the Dispatch story about ECOT's latest stall explains everything.

"From 2010-2015, ECOT founder William Lager has given more than $1.2 million in disclosed campaign contributions, the vast majority to Republican lawmakers.
Speaker Rosenberger was the keynote speaker at ECOT’s graduation ceremony last month, and he was introduced by Sen. Bill Coley, R-West Chester. 
Gov. John Kasich spoke at ECOT’s graduation in 2011, while Ohio Supreme Court Justice Terrence O’Donnell spoke in 2013 and state Auditor Dave Yost spoke in 2015. Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, spoke earlier this year to an online charter school rally at the Statehouse.
ECOT Superintendent Rick Teerters, who earlier this week warned that the state’s attendance auditing efforts could shut down the school, today urged supporters to contact state lawmakers and the state Board of Education to 'let state leaders know what ECOT means to you.'
'In your letter, please express your disappointment that the Ohio Department of Education is taking actions aimed at closing e-schools,' Teeters said. 'With these changes, ODE is trying to take away your voice. That is wrong.'
Teeters reassured parents and students that the school would open this year as planned 'even while we fend off these attacks on school choice.'"
This is what political contributions buy you, apparently. The ability to collect nearly $1 billion since 2000, graduate not even 4 out of 10 students , have more kids fail to graduate than any school in America, and be paid more state money per pupil than 85% of Ohio's traditional school districts, which have to pay for buses, buildings, HVAC, etc. -- expenses you don't have. All while paying teachers 20 percent of all the taxpayer money ECOT receives.

Only in America.

Monday, July 11, 2016

BREAKING: Accountability Wins, ECOT Loses Legal Hearing. Nation's Largest For-Profit School's Future Unclear.

A Franklin County judge has ruled that the Ohio Department of Education can try to figure out whether the $108 million it sent to the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow last school year was overpaid by tens of millions of dollars.

Well, that's a relief.

ECOT sued the state last week to keep it from determining whether students were actually participating in their educational program, rather than just receiving it. ECOT's Superintendent called the ODE effort "underhanded" in an email over the weekend -- an email in which he confirmed that if ODE followed through on its efforts to ascertain ECOT's actual participation it could force the school to close.

So now ODE can find out if ECOT should have been paid $108 million, or a substantially smaller amount. At stake is nothing less than the existence of the country's largest for-profit charter school -- the size of which made even the staunchest charter school advocates blush.

For years, I've been pointing out ECOT's horrific performance record, its out-of-whack funding scheme and its political heft.

Even though more children fail to graduate in time at ECOT than any other school in the country, Gov. John Kasich, Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger and former House Speaker Bill Batchelder all spoke at ECOT's graduation ceremonies.

Wonder if there's any regrets?

If ODE finds the same results it did last year at Provost Academy, then as much as $86.4 million of the $108 million sent to ECOT last year may have to be repaid.

Extending that over the course of the school's existence could mean that as much as $723 million of the $903 million sent to ECOT since 2000 went to pay for kids ECOT can't prove it ever educated.

It's not like that leap is unthinkable. After all, it's first year of existence, Ohio Auditor of State Jim Petro found that ECOT was paid $1.7 million for kids it couldn't prove it had.

ECOT's lawsuit revealed that the year after that finding, ECOT struck a deal with ODE to be paid for kids it offered instruction to, as long as the student finished their first assignment (among other ways).

Again, as encouraging as it is to see ODE take on the state's largest charter school, it is a reminder of just how well-earned Ohio's national reputation as a charter school backwater had become until recently.

And how many hundreds of millions of taxpayers' dollars have been wasted.

Accountability 101: If State Counts ECOT's Kids, School May Close. Exactly.

If the Ohio Department of Education tries to verify that students at the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow are online 5 hours a day, ECOT Superintendent Rick Teeters told email recipients, "they would likely force us and other e-schools to close our doors."


It's called accountability.

At issue is ECOT's whole business model -- getting paid $7,127 per student (more per pupil state funding than 85 percent of Ohio's traditional school districts) to simply offer 920 hours of curriculum to kids, not actually prove they are educating them. ECOT received $108 million last school year from the state, and has been paid nearly $1 billion since it opened in 2000.

This is nothing less than an existential fight for the nation's largest for-profit charter school.

ODE wants to verify that the kids it's sending taxpayer money to educate actually logged on and off enough to justify the $108 million expenditure. ECOT claims in a lawsuit filed last week that ODE doesn't understand its technology, which is so apparently groundbreaking that it allows kids to be educated effectively without logging in.

As Special Counsel to the Ohio Attorney General Douglas R. Cole put it in his filing responding to ECOT's complaints,
"Under a plain, common-sense reading of the community school (charter school) funding statutes, ECOT is required to track. and ODE to reimburse for, actual student participation. Finding otherwise would render numerous (Ohio Revised Code) provisions ... meaningless, and, as a more fundamental matter, the statutory scheme would not make sense."
How else do regulators determine student participation in online educational experiences except through logging in and out of the system? It's sort of like saying that a student in a traditional setting is "participating" even if the student shows up to school for a few minutes every so often. ECOT is arguing, essentially, that it should be paid in full for educating kids that barely show up simply because ECOT would let them in if they ever did show up.

It'd be one thing if ECOT's performance indicated this novel approach actually worked. However, as has been documented over and over again, ECOT's performance is among the worst of any school in the state, and it can't even graduate 4 out of 10 kids.

So the returns aren't great.

According to the Dispatch article about the ECOT lawsuit, we may have a hearing as early as today to decide whether ODE can proceed with its quasi-audit of ECOT's kids. So we may have clarity about whether this count moves forward very shortly.

But if ECOT is forced to close because ODE is simply checking to make sure the school is educating students the state has already paid to educate, that says something about how ineffective ECOT has been.

And it explains, once again, just how lacking Ohio has been on charter school oversight. For it appears that all ODE had to do to overcome ECOT's significant political clout was to simply ask them to prove their kids actually participate in an educational program.

And you wonder why Ohio's charter school regime has been so mocked.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Ohio Department of Education Lets ECOT Print Money

Buried inside today's Columbus Dispatch story about The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow suing the state is a perfect example of why Ohio's become a national joke on charter school oversight.

ECOT is suing the state to prevent it from determining if taxpayers have overpaid tens of millions of dollars to the nation's largest, for-profit school.

According to the Dispatch article, a preliminary check this spring found that "most log-in times from these files did not substantiate 5 hours per day of login time for the students reviewed." So despite the political largess of its founder -- William Lager -- it looked like ODE -- finally emboldened by the wide-ranging charter school reforms of last year's House Bill 2 -- was about to uncover some serious problems.

However, the most amazing thing we learned from the story in the Columbus Dispatch is that ODE and ECOT apparently cut a deal in 2003 after ECOT was found by the State Auditor to have been  paid $1.7 million in taxpayer money for kids it wasn't educating.

Here's the deal.


Instead of having to have kids log on to their computers for 920 hours in a school year, ECOT just had to provide them with 920 hours worth of course material. Whether the kid EVER logged on didn't matter. What mattered was whether ECOT made the material available.

Can you believe that? What a sweetheart of a deal for ECOT. They were paid $104 million last year in taxpayer dollars meant for 564 of Ohio's higher performing school districts (more than $900 million since it opened).

And all they had to do to earn nearly $1 billion is provide kids with 920 hours of learning, not make sure they did it??

And, according to documents released by ECOT, ODE was cool with this?

I don't know what's more offensive, that ECOT can do this or that ODE signed off on it.

Once again, I implore my friends in the quality-based charter school community here and around the country to speak out against this outrage committed by both ECOT and ODE. Loudly.

Want to know why Ohio's gained a nationally ridiculed reputation over charters? Look no further than this amazingly horrible oversight.

Can it be said in any other state that simply offering school to kids means you should be paid for educating them, even if they never enter your door?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the 2003 Ohio Department of Education.