Thursday, December 12, 2019
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A big online charter school is folding in Ohio

In more than 6,500 words, Mother Jones reports that the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow charter school in Ohio, or ECOT, is closing its doors and leaving thousands of families looking for new education options for their children in what was once a prime proving ground for charter schools in this state.

(Rpavich / Flickr Creative Commons)

William Lager, the man who got the idea for starting a charter school without an actual school building in the late 1990s, when the internet seemed to be able to have a solution for every problem under the sun, including so-called “failing” public schools, jotted down his initial ideas on napkins at a Waffle House on the west side of Columbus, it was reported. Gov John Kasich, the last Republican standing against President Donald Trump in the 2016 primary elections, was reportedly one of the biggest supporters of the ECOT charter school.

But like so many other charters that start out with a good idea of investigating possible improvements to the way public school districts operate schools (see the charter schools in Massachusetts, for example), the charter schools established in Ohio and many other states have become corrupt, with laws allowing their owners and operators to collect taxpayer money by the millions and not invest it in the quality of education the schools provide.

As a result of corruption that eventually overcomes even the best educational plans if left unmonitored and unchecked by school boards, elected officials, or some form of public accountability, the ECOT’s parent organization pulled the plug:

Then, last week, the school’s charter sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, claiming concern that ECOT wouldn’t have the funds to last out the year, suddenly announced plans to drop the school. Many of ECOT’s 12,000 current students learned on the nightly news or read in newspapers that unless an emergency deal could be worked out, the institution was in imminent danger of folding up before the start of next semester, set to begin on January 22, leaving many parents confused and panicking, with only days to choose a new school and get their child enrolled.

For many of those thousands, ECOT was sort of a school of last resort. Many had fallen through the cracks, including the 15-year-old daughter of a waitress at the Waffle House where Mr Lager, a former lobbyist, wrote his initial notes, and just dropped out before finishing high school.

The only aspect of this tragic story that makes it worthy of more than 6,500 words is that it is completely ordinary. Charter schools become corrupt all the time. Maybe they aren’t as big as this one or don’t serve Mother Jones’s political narrative, but the big article clearly shows how the GOP destroyed the perfectly good idea of charter schools for a little money.

  • In 2015, the Center for Popular Democracy, a left-leaning group that includes some old chapters of ACORN, had documented more than $200 million in fraud and waste by charter schools.

Charter schools in general aren’t a bad idea, though: They can take a small group of students for a few years, relax some of the accountability demands of state laws, and let school innovators try to prove there may be a better way to teach students.

The problem is the corruption, which makes charter owners abandon those grand plans to innovate in education just so they can build a balance sheet for shareholders. By convincing students to enroll in their charter school, they can draw thousands of dollars each from the state, leading to a profit in the millions for schools like ECOT. Then, when the balance sheet doesn’t look good, students in the school are abandoned.

As I said, this is truly an everyday story, made big because of the political leanings of Mother Jones. I have to wonder, though, when will we make sense out of it? When will we stop setting kids up for the failures of profit-seeking non-educators in these corrupt charter schools?

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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