As ECOT Logs Off, Will Ohio Pols Return Its Campaign Donations?

It looks like the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow is in fact yesterday’s school.

A long nightmare lasting nearly two decades appears to be over. ECOT, the notorious online charter school, has been suspended by its sponsor and is shutting down, although the appointment of a special master will delay the liquidation of its assets in the short term.

When the official last rites for ECOT are concluded, the online school’s remnants will be piled on top of the rest of the other charter school rubble, a junkyard contained in a swamp filled with the carcasses of 260 shuttered schools that have crashed and burned since the beginning of the misguided charterworld experiment.

Yet there is no joy in Mudville, or anyplace in between, with the closing of this troubled enterprise. Sadly, the nightmare for 12,000 students and their families, coupled with the scramble to find them another school, is just beginning. The same is true for about 1,000 teachers and other personnel, left in the cold mid-year, collateral damage from the failure of this strange enterprise.

Those following the ECOT saga that has unfolded during the last two years have been told about a continuing story of voodoo accounting when it comes to state funds, voodoo math when determining the actual number of students, and everything else voodoo befitting of the voodoo public policy that created the charter school industry.

But in the last week, the narrative about the former online behemoth has shifted dramatically. Now, we’re starting to hear some noise about calling out those who bear responsibility for this debacle, those who have aided and abetted this billion dollar grab from the state treasury.

The new narrative, appropriately enough, focuses on the main character and his responsibility in the mess engulfing thousands of students and their families in the middle of the academic year.

William Lager, the founder of ECOT and head of both Altair Learning, the company that manages the school and IQ Innovations, the firm which provides the software used by students, was put on notice by State Auditor Dave Yost about his potential liability in the repayment of funds owed the state for inflated student enrollment. In an interview with the Columbus Dispatch, Yost offered this interesting view on the ECOT mess:

“The idea is you form these corporations in order to limit the liability that stems from doing business,” Yost said, responding to questions from the Dispatch. “The question is, ‘What do you do when someone deliberately uses it as a tool, knowing something is amiss’?

Yost went on in musing about the next steps for the state:

A very significant portion of the money that passed through ECOT ended up with Bill Lager. The Supreme Court ruling “allows at least the potential for him to be personally liable for it.”

In the same Dispatch article, Attorney General hopeful Steven Dettelbach, a former U.S. Attorney, made a similar call for Lager to be held accountable for some repayment to the state. “There clearly, in this case, are facts that seem on their face to indicate there was misrepresentation, deceit and fraud,” he said.

When you have the implosion of one of the largest charter schools in the country in an election year, a perfect storm of vitriol and blame is the byproduct. The Dispatch coverage included this statement from Democratic State Auditor candidate Zach Space:

(T)he self-interested politicians who aided and abetted this slow-motion train wreck for more than a decade must now be held accountable. . . Politicians who eagerly did ECOT’s bidding as long as founder Bill Lager handed out campaign checks — all the while knowing that the ‘school’ was an abject failure — are now, unsurprisingly, silent. These individuals do a disservice to the concept of public service, and I am calling on every politician who took contributions from Bill Lager and other ECOT executives to donate every cent back to Ohio public schools, where it belongs.

That same Dispatch article found Dettelbach in agreement with Space’s approach.

. . . any politician still in office who took money from ECOT should return those donations immediately. A mechanism should be set up to get that money back to where it came from, the state education system, and dedicated to helping the families and students who now face an uncertain transition thanks to the politicians’ lack of leadership.

Indeed, it must be an election year, with former ECOT commencement speaker Dave Yost saying that the return of some funds should be expected from Lager’s companies. Moreover, Space and Dettelbach want those politicians who have aided this empire to also return the monies donated by Lager back to the state treasury so they can be distributed to the school districts, where they were appropriated in the first place without the consent of the resident voters.

The Sunday, January 21 edition of the Dispatch will only fuel the demand for some type of repayment to the state. In a page one story, the paper again informed readers about the luxurious residences that were purchased by Lager in the last several years, including “a $433,500 waterfront home on Senecaville Lake in Noble County; a $995,000 house in Upper Arlington; a $3.7 million house in Key West, Florida, with a pool and two-story cabana.”

In the meantime, Yost, who has spoken three times at ECOT commencements, must now be persona non grata at ECOT, where his photo has mysteriously disappeared from the lobby of the online school.

As a service to our faithful readers, Plunderbund wants to assist the public in seeking an accounting from those officeholders who have pocketed ECOT money over the years and ignored the school’s operational issues, supporting what may be the appearance of “misrepresentation, deceit, and fraud,” as Dettelbach viewed the situation. For starters, we highlight three Republican legislators who took ample sums of once public funds that were received by Lager’s enterprise and then converted into campaign contributions ...

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