A Columbus-based virtual charter school closed by its sponsor for questionable practices cost the seven school districts of Fulton County a combined total of over $1.1 million.
While each county school district was affected, the hardest hit were Wauseon, Swanton, and Pike-Delta-York.
Information released June 6 by Innovation Ohio, a state watchdog organization, shows that before being shut down Jan. 19 the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) collected nearly $591 million from all but six of the state’s 613 school districts since the 2012-13 school year. That money included $87 million scheduled to be paid this year.
Under scrutiny by the Ohio Department of Education (ODE), ECOT failed to prove its online students had logged sufficient hours into its system to prove themselves full-time students. The virtual charter school was finally shuttered by the governing board of its sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West.
As with all charter schools, the funding received by ECOT from 2012 until January of this year was state aid deducted from the public school district in which the ECOT student resides. But due to ECOT’s inconsistent records the state has ordered the virtual school to repay $80 million in per-pupil subsidies.
Innovation Ohio reported that the following amount of state revenue was transferred from local school districts to ECOT over the six-year period: Wauseon, $279,544; Swanton, $271,360; Pike-Delta-York, $270,070; Evergreen, $158,868; Archbold, $67,166; Pettisville, $65,961; Fayette, $24,031. The amounts total $1,137,000.
P-D-Y superintendent Ted Haselman said ECOT should pay back the school districts.
“The state took money from the local districts, paid the money to ECOT, but ECOT didn’t fully educate the student? Absolutely, I believe ECOT should reimburse districts if ECOT did not, in fact, educate the students,” he said.
The school district lost 14 students to charter schools last school year, and Haselman believes the schools should be held accountable.
“There should be the same systematic reviews of charter schools as there are with the public schools,” he said.
Wauseon schools superintendent Larry Brown said it’s not clear how much of the district’s state tax money was diverted to ECOT. He said what is clear is “that the state legislators during this same period of time did not put into place the needed regulatory requirements to ensure the proper funding for this specific online educational money maker and several other similar charter schools.”
Brown lauded Wauseon Virtual Academy, saying it meets the educational standards the ODE requires.
“These students enrolled in our online program may participate in Wauseon extra-curricular activities if they maintain their academic progress through active online involvement. In addition, WVA students can complete all of the necessary graduation requirements and graduate with a high school diploma from Wauseon schools,” he said.
Chris Lake, Swanton schools superintendent, said eight of the district’s students had transferred to ECOT at the time it closed down. He said the charter school practiced no follow-up or accountability.
“If we ran our public school the way ECOT was run, people would be out with torches and pitchforks,” he said. “They weren’t doing a great service.”
Lake said he’s not confident the money will be reimbursed. He said that’s a hard financial loss for the school district, which invests money in technology and upgrades for the students.
“When you think of what that money lost would have done for the district,” he said. “We could have provided more resources for our students. That’s money our kids aren’t benefiting from.”
He said the ECOT scandal was discussed consistently in the school district’s meetings with legislators.
“When you take endeavors like education, which are supposed to be for public good, and open it up to for-profit companies you’re just opening it up to corruption. People realize there’s a lot of money to be made in education,” Lake said.
The Swanton Local School system is not writing checks to legislators, but rather staying accountable for every penny spent, he said.
The superintendent said now that problems at ECOT have been exposed it’s time to address them.
“We need to hold charter schools to the same accountability as public schools. It would clean up the system,” he said.
Pettisville Schools superintendent Steven Switzer said an average of two or three of the district’s students switch to charter schools each year. He said the school districts affected by the ECOT scandal should be reimbursed.
“I hope they would do the right thing. I would expect them to do the right thing,” Switzer said. “The whole issue is something that has been a sham.”
He said while the concept of charter schools is noble, “the state has basically created a program and paid for it with money from us. In some districts, it covers it. In many districts, it doesn’t. (And) the results of charter schools have not approached, in many cases, the schools they’re replacing.”
Switzer said the problem is that the state allows charter schools to profit, making them a political payback. “Therein lies a world of difference. Those who have learned they can make a profit have invested in the political contribution,” he said.
He blamed ECOT’s impropriety on a loss of oversight by the Ohio Department of Education, but also chided the media.
“The press is at fault for allowing this to go on for years without saying, ‘Hey, this smells bad,’” Switzer said. “The press needed to call the issue, to look at results. They’re doing it now, but that’s about a billion dollars too late.”
But the real blow is against the students, he said.
“By allowing an organization like this to operate, promoting dreams to kids…offering them that option and then not delivering on that option, is a true tragedy,” Switzer said.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.