June 10, 2018
ECOT Info Session: Background and Fallout from a Scanda
On Sunday afternoon, June 10, 2018, about 50 people packed the meeting room at Whetstone Library for a panel discussion, “ECOT Info Session: Background and Fallout from a Scandal,” co-sponsored by Indivisible Districts 3, 12, and 15, Public Education Partners, Plunderbund, the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, and Ohio BATs. Panelists included: Steve Dyer, Education Fellow for Innovation Ohio and former state legislator; Rachel Coyle, former aide to Sen. Joe Schiavoni, one of Ohio GA’s leaders in charter school reform; Denis Smith, former consultant to the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office; and Sandy Theis, former statehouse reporter for 25 years and ProgressOhio’s Executive Director. She has exposed a series of charter school scandals that have led to past reforms and inspired current criminal investigations.
Sandy Theis opened the discussion by reminding the audience that clear warning signs of disaster accompanied the birth and growth of the charter movement in Ohio. Republicans, in control of both the legislature and governor’s office from 1995 to 2006, enabled the siphoning of public tax dollars away from cash strapped school districts into the hands of privatizers like David Brennan and William Lager, founder of ECOT. The Ohio GOP gave support and cover to a charter system that has consistently committed educational malpractice on students – and parents – who were taken in by the promise of a better school experience. Overwhelmingly, charter schools in general, and ECOT in particular, have made a mockery of that promise. A case in point was the dismantling in 2005 of the Legislative Office of Education Oversight (LOEO), an agency created to produce independent analysis and recommendations concerning educational legislation and policy in Ohio. When LOEO findings began to question charter school outcomes, Republicans, led by John Husted, decided to eliminate the agency by sneaking an amendment into the budget bill. Husted, and many other Republicans, received substantial campaign contributions from ECOT founder Bill Lager, who styled himself a political player and kingmaker.
Steve Dyer emphasized the enormity of ECOT’s financial drain on public school districts. Since its inception in 2000, ECOT received $1.1 billion that would have otherwise gone to the districts from which students were recruited to the online charter school. $591 million of that $1.1 billion flowed to Lager and his associates in just the past six years. About half of the $591 million came from Ohio’s urban districts, perennially short of adequate funding. In addition, Dyer noted when districts that lost students to ECOT received less in state funding than the amount sent to ECOT, the difference came out of local revenue. For example, in 2016-2017, ECOT received $7288.00 per pupil. Per pupil state funding to public districts was $4749.00 that year. That’s a difference of $2539 that had to come out of local school district revenue, a total amount of $36,000,000 in 2016-2017.
Denis Smith’s presentation focused on the lack of oversight extant in Ohio’s charter industry. In fact, the original legislation passed in 1997-1998 that allowed for the creation of charter schools came out of a toxic political environment in both the statehouse and the Ohio Department of Education (ODE). Deregulation was supposed to create a competitive market in education that would force public schools to improve or lose students to charter schools, like ECOT. Public schools did, in fact, lose students to charters. Students who ended up in ECOT and most other charters, however, did not receive a superior education. In the vast majority of measures, public schools have outperformed charters across the board. That is perhaps the saddest part of the entire ECOT/charter school scam. Only about 40% of ECOT students graduated, and they left ECOT having received a demonstrably inferior education. Of the 40% who graduated, just 2% went on to college over a two-year period – a dismal record of achievement.
Rachel Coyle, once an aide to Senator Joe Schiavoni, called upon her experience in the charter wars to report on efforts made by Democrats to keep ECOT and its misdeeds before the public. Lacking numbers to pass meaningful reforms in the charter industry, Schiavoni and his fellow Democrats introduced legislation to create oversight and transparency in charter school governance. They were successful in scheduling public hearings on the bill, keeping the issue in the news, but did not have the votes to get the bill out of the Senate. Lager and his cohorts used their money and influence with Republican senators to successfully block passage. In fact, over the years, charter school backers have been able to enact some 150 exemptions to Ohio Revised Code that benefit charter schools and decrease accountability for their operators.
Thanks to dogged efforts by Theis, Dyer, Smith, Coyle and many other public school advocates, ECOT, and by association the entire charter movement, have come under much closer scrutiny. Thankfully, ECOT is no longer miseducating students and draining already inadequate public school funding sources. Presumably, Bill Lager still has his $4million mansion in Key West. The question now remains whether the people responsible for this sad chapter Ohio’s educational history will be brought to account.