Elyria Chronicle-Telegram: Charter schools have earned extra audit

The following is transcribed from an editorial in the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram that ran in print on Friday, June 15, 2018.

Zack Space, a former Democratic congressman running for state auditor, is right to want further scrutiny of the failed Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow and other for-profit charter schools in the state.

Space announced earlier this week that if he’s elected to the job, he’ll create a specialized task force composed of investigators, auditors and educators to look into whether Ohio taxpayers were ripped off by charter school operators.

He plans to call it the “Stop Charter Abuse and Malfeasance” Special Audit Unit. Since the unit doesn’t exist yet and hasn’t uncovered any actual wrongdoing, the nifty acronym -- SCAM -- seems a bit presumptuous at this point.

During a visit to The Chronicle-Telegram’s offices Wednesday, Space told us that he wants to “ascertain just how much we’ve lost to for-profit charter schools.” He told us he suspects the figure would run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Space clearly isn’t a fan of for-profit companies operating charter schools, something he’d like the Ohio General Assembly to ban. He also told us he wants greater access to corporate records, which he rightly pointed out should be subject to greater oversight because the private companies are operating charter schools with public dollars.

He said the SCAM unit would look into whether charter schools overbilled the state, how the for-profit management companies that operate them spent taxpayer dollars and whether state Auditor Dave Yost did enough to prevent the ECOT debacle and any other shenanigans.

Those aren’t unreasonable goals, especially since ECOT wasn’t exactly living up to its promise to prepare its students for the future. ECOT apparently thought it would be just fine to report to the state how long students were logged into its online portal rather than what they were actually doing online.

The state is already fighting to recover more than $80 million from ECOT.

It wasn’t so long ago that Yost, a term-limited Republican now running for Ohio attorney general, was giving ECOT awards for good accounting and appearing at its graduation ceremonies. He has since called for criminal investigations into how the school was operated and donated to charity political contributions he received from ECOT founder William Lager and others affiliated with the school.

State Rep. Keith Faber, R-Celina, Space’s Republican opponent, also has promised to donate $36,000 in ECOT-related campaign contributions to charity.

Faber mocked Space’s plan for additional audits of Ohio’s for-profit charter schools.

“This isn’t a new idea,” Faber’s campaign wrote in a news release Wednesday. “All charter schools are public schools and subject to audit. It has been in the Auditor’s job description all along and, in fact, there have been a number of these audit reports published just this year. What’s next, Zack Space asking police officers to enforce traffic laws?”

In fact, Space is calling for more than audits of charter schools. He wants to audit their private sponsors. But even the responsibility to audit the schools themselves, which is in the auditor’s job description, seems to have been exercised less than zealously under Yost. If he had done his job more vigorously, he and other Republicans wouldn’t be calling for investigations and scrambling to distance themselves from ECOT, even as they insist they were credible watchdogs all along.

Moreover, Faber served in the Ohio General Assembly, including as Ohio Senate president, during ECOT’s heyday. State legislators did little to stop ECOT’s ravenous consumption of taxpayer dollars. Faber is even trying to rewrite history to make himself into a heroic champion who held ECOT accountable.

“Thanks to the strong charter school reforms put in place while I was Senate President and the diligent work of Auditor Yost and his staff, ECOT was caught and it out of business,” another Faber news release said last month.

PolitiFact rated that statement as “mostly false,” pointing out that while a bill that required online schools to provide better data about students’ online activities did pass while Faber was leading the Senate, the Ohio Department of Education already had been demanding that information.

Faber isn’t alone in having ignored ECOT’s problems. The school was a darling of many Republicans, who were happy to take its campaign cash over the years as they extolled the virtues of what was once the state’s largest charter school.

Faber’s spokeswoman, Allison Dumski, argued that Space’s proposal for a special investigative unit showed he “clearly does not know what’s included in the Auditor of State’s role.”

Space might not know what other scandals could be lurking undiscovered in the state’s charter school ecosystem, but, unlike Faber, he’s willing to look.