Online Charter School ECOT Closes Virtual Doors
The central idea behind charter schools is that a private business or nonprofit can run an educational facility better than a public sector operator. The issue is that sometimes businesses and nonprofits can fail and close. That problem has come to light in a big way with the closure of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), the first and largest online K-12 charter school in the state of Ohio.
ECOT was launched in 2000 with sponsorship support from the Lucas County Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West in Toledo. That sponsor voted to pull its support from the school last week, shuttering the school last Thursday, January 18, and leaving approximately 12,000 enrolled students scrambling to find new options across the state.
“We are very sorry that we were unable to maintain your education through the end of the school year,” stated deputy superintendent and chief of staff, Brittny Pierson. “It was with our every intention that we would continue to provide students a quality education, as we have strived for each year since we began.”
Calls for the closure of the school began years ago when questions were raised about the financial situation behind the scenes. Political advocacy group ProgressOhio conducted a report in 2016 that concluded that $2.7 million in public dollars were wrongly steered from ECOT into a private venture operated by ECOT founder William Lager, which was then chosen as a private vendor to provide online textbooks for public schools in Ohio.
“This resulted in a highly unusual arrangement: Ohio taxpayers paid millions to help IQ Innovations, a private firm, build a sophisticated technology platform – but the state received zero ownership interest in it,” states the report. “Despite the state’s generosity, IQ consistently failed to deliver on the system’s promised functionality, records show.”
The Ohio Department of Education also took issue with ECOT’s record-keeping in 2016. The department conducted an audit and found that the school had appeared to claim it had 15,300 students enrolled while only 6,300 could be accounted for. That meant that the school had overcharged taxpayers by $60 million just for that school year, which was money that would have otherwise continued to fund the education of children enrolled in public schools throughout the state.
A court case at the Ohio Supreme Court is still pending as the state of Ohio attempts to get $80 million returned from ECOT, while the school has appealed the case and has oral arguments scheduled for Tuesday, February 13.
Outside of the direct effect that ECOT has had on the education system in Ohio, the closure has also rekindled a highly politicized fight during an important election year. While many charters receive bipartisan support, ECOT has received more support from prominent Ohio Republicans, which Democrats are using as ammunition.
“Ohio taxpayers have been bilked out of $80 million because of this mess, thousands of kids and families have been thrown into educational chaos, and it all happened on the watch of Republican politicians like Dave Yost, Keith Faber, Frank LaRose and Robert Sprague,” said Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper in a release issued last night. “Now that they’re angling for promotions to statewide office, these Ohio Republicans are making excuses or ducking questions about the campaign contributions they took from ECOT’s founder and his employees at the very moments they were failing to do their jobs.”
The Ohio Republican Party has not issued a statement on the closure of ECOT.
Approximately 1,200 students could be reentering the Columbus City Schools (CCS) system due to the closure of ECOT, which the district is preparing for with special enrollment events. Those complications are being compounded with the simultaneous announcement that CCS Interim Superintendent John Stanford is proposing a $21 million budget cut and the elimination of 163 educations jobs to the school system due to budget shortfalls in state funding.
Stay tuned to CU for more updates as this story develops.