December 2, 2020

ECOT Charter Scam Has Ohio GOP on the Ropes

Greater Cincinnati parents have some great school choices for their kids. U.S. News recently ranked five Hamilton County high schools in their Ohio Top 10: (1) Walnut Hills, (2) Wyoming, (3) Indian Hill, (6) Madeira and (10) Turpin. (I’m proud that my four delightful daughters graduated from one of the top two!)

Since the days of former Gov. George Voinovich, Ohio Republicans have sung the mantra of school choice, but not to boost our traditional public schools. Instead, the focus has involved diverting resources from public schools, first in the form of vouchers to religious schools, and then by creating an alternative system of tax payer-funded community (aka Charter) schools.

Ohio Charter schools are funded based on enrollment. Per-pupil funding from the state is deducted from the student’s home district and transferred to the Charter they attend.

Example: last school year about 6,693 students in the Cincinnati school district enrolled in charters. The state deducted about $50.5 million from Cincinnati’s funding and sent it to those charters, or about $7,551/student. In contrast, Cincinnati Public Schools get only about $3,900 from the state for each of the about 37,517 kids enrolled.

About 113,300 students attend Ohio charters; 1,561,032 go to traditional public schools. The GOP General Assembly sent more than $895 million in state money to charter schools last year, or $7,900/student. In contrast the state sends only about $4,520/student to traditional public schools. Local property owners must make up the difference. Bottom line: state legislators love charter schools. Traditional public schools? Not so much.

Many Ohio Charters are run by for-profit companies. These operators can divert funds that a typical school would use to pay teachers, or buy school supplies, to pay executive salaries or buy advertising. At Cincinnati College Prep Academy, taxpayer funds paid for spas, jewelry and European travel for its superintendent. Many Charter operators quickly comprehended Columbus’s “pay to play” political culture and made generous campaign contributions to the (mostly) GOP politicians who created Ohio’s zany school funding formula.

But as Ohio’s 2018 statewide elections head into the final stretch, the issue of school choice is turning against the GOP, all thanks to ECOT (The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow).

ECOT founder Bill Lager cleverly determined that under Ohio’s permissive charter school laws, he didn’t even need an actual school to bill taxpayers for that (now) $7,900 per kid. Just send an $800 PC to a student, offer a few online courses, stage the occasional graduation at a rented event center, and, hocus pocus, the state would send very big checks. To keep those checks flowing, ECOT associates and their families lubricated GOP candidates and committees with more than $2 million in campaign cash. Meanwhile, ECOT collected more than $1 billion from taxpayers since 2000.

For more than a decade, those political donations were a good investment. Cheap computers were shipped out. State dollars flowed. But it turned out that ECOT could not prove that many of its students had ever logged onto their classes. When finally goaded into auditing ECOT’s attendance records, the state discovered ECOT had overbilled about $80 million for seemingly phantom students. Rather than refund the money, ECOT shut down, leaving 12,000 students (if they ever existed) scrambling.

Ohio Democrats gleefully point to the ECOT-related cash received by GOP Lt. Gov. candidate Jon Husted ($36,860), his running mate Mike DeWine ($15,657), and recently exiled GOP House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger ($59,240). (The GOP points to $600 once donated to Democratic Governor candidate Richard Cordray.)

In fact, ECOT is just the tip of the Ohio Charter scandal. The FBI was already investigating 17 Horizon and Noble Academies operated by Concept Schools, an entity controlled by mysterious Turkish cleric Fetallah Gulen. The schools have imported more than 650 teachers from Turkey. Coincidentally, former GOP House Speaker Rosenberger enjoyed a free trip to Turkey compliments of the schools’ operators.

The ongoing ECOT scandal has Democrats flashing back to 2006. That year, with its Coingate scandal (remember Bob Taft, Ken Blackwell and Tom Noe?), was the last time Democrats showed a pulse in statewide elections, electing Gov. Ted Strickland.

But whichever party wins in November, let’s hope the folks in Columbus start making school choice about letting parents choose from among quality public schools, not “pay to play” Charter scams like ECOT.