Ohio’s ECOT debacle

Tom Dunn - Contributing Columnist

If you ever need a real-life example of how dysfunctional (some may say “corrupt”) the political establishment is, look no further than the recent closing of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT). If you are not an educator or if your child didn’t attend ECOT, you may not have paid much attention to it. However, if you are opposed to having your tax dollars thrown down a rat hole, this is a story you should pay attention to. I guarantee you will be disgusted by what you learn.

For the uninitiated, ECOT was the largest online charter school in Ohio that, until recently, provided an alternative method of educating 12,000 students statewide. Students who enrolled in ECOT either couldn’t achieve success in a typical public school, didn’t want to attend a typical public school, couldn’t afford to attend or couldn’t get admitted to a private school, or had circumstances in their lives that dictated enrolling in an online school. Students could “attend” school from the comfort of their home, performing their school work online, with teachers remotely monitoring and grading the work they submitted.

ECOT was created by Bill Lager, and it was managed by his private company, Altair Learning Management. As a private company, one of its primary objectives was to make money. After all, that’s what private companies do, right? I guess that’s okay in a capitalistic society, although it seems a little seedy when a company makes a profit off the backs of children, especially when many of those children are not well served. But don’t take my word for it. Google Mr. Lager to learn more about him and his ECOT scam.

Even though ECOT was privately owned, our politicians, who create the rules under which public entities must operate, labeled it and other privately owned charter schools as public schools. Of course, they made this pronouncement while excusing them from some of the peskier rules that those of us who work in public schools must follow. In other words, they gave these private companies access to our tax dollars, but they excused them from following some of the rules we public school hacks are forced to follow under penalty of law.

Did I mention that, according to published reports, since 2000 Mr. Lager has donated 2.1 million dollars to the campaigns of political candidates, 91 percent of whom were Republican? If you were wondering why ECOT didn’t have to follow the same rules the rest of us have to follow, that’s probably a pertinent piece of information for you to have. But, I’m sure his donations played no role in the creation of laws that favored his school (wink, wink).

ECOT ran into trouble when it was determined that it was collecting money from the state for students who were not really “attending” the school. When I say “collecting money,” I mean to a tune of $80 million over the last two years, and when I say “attending” that means they were not logging into classes and doing the work. Since state funding is driven by students who are on a class roster, having an accurate accounting of students is pretty important.

To repeat, that was $80 MILLION OVER TWO YEARS. Those are yours and my tax dollars, and since Mr. Lager opened ECOT way back in 2000, can you imagine how much money his school (and private company) collected for “phantom” students?

After ECOT exhausted all of its legal avenues to try to avoid accepting responsibility for inappropriately collecting these dollars, Mr. Lager decided to closed its doors, and 12,000 students and countless staff were left to fend for themselves.

But, wait, it gets better.

Now remember, those 12,000 students are school-aged students, and the law dictates that they attend school somewhere. Certainly, Mr. Lager would spend some of his newfound spare time making sure these kids were enrolled in school somewhere, right? Nope. He had made his money, and he was gone.

Certainly the legislators who created this ridiculous system under the guise of “school choice,” whose campaigns were funded in part by Mr. Lager, and who love to hold other people “accountable” for their actions would step up and ensure that these 12,000 kids were taken care of, right? Nope. They were too busy pretending as if they were appalled by what happened, even though their rules encouraged it.

Certainly, the parents of these 12,000 students who were enrolled in ECOT were responsible for ensuring that their children were enrolled in school somewhere, right? Wrong again.

Nope, as is ALWAYS the case when politics govern schools, “fixing” this problem became the responsibility of your local superintendent; a superintendent who, in many cases had never laid eyes on the students who resided within his or her school district, because they were enrolled in ECOT; a superintendent who most certainly did not write the rules that enabled this fiasco to occur in the first place; and a superintendent whose district (yours) lost tax revenue to ECOT.

Yes, it became your local superintendent’s responsibility to obtain a list of resident students who were enrolled in ECOT; to hunt them down; and to be sure they were attending school somewhere. If they weren’t diligent enough, they received the customary threats from the Ohio Department of Education.

And, where were the people who created this mess? I’m sure they were huddled in rooms in Columbus creating their next batch of ridiculous laws.


Tom Dunn

Contributing Columnist

Tom Dunn is the superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.

Tom Dunn is the superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.