ECOT closure brings cheers — and howls that the state wouldn’t budge


By Patrick O’Donnell - The Plain Dealer, Cleveland (TNS)



CLEVELAND — Charter school critics cheered the vote Thursday night to shut down the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) online charter school, while State Rep. Andrew Brenner and ECOT backers blasted the state for forcing the closure mid-year.

“What a relief!” said State Rep. Teresa Fedor, a longtime opponent of charters and critic of ECOT’s poor report cards. “Finally, education officials are standing up for our children and taxpayers.”

And Steve Dyer, the former state representative who works with the Ohio Education Association on charter issues, said the vote should have come far sooner.

“Everyone who could have done something about this school for 18 years should be ashamed of their failure,” he said.

Even national charter supporters who want better quality schools applauded the decision. Nina Rees, head of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, called it “a good day for those who believe in the importance of closing poor-performing schools.”

But supporters of charters and the school say the state should not have forced the budget problems that led ECOT’s sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, to withdraw support Thursday and immediately stop operations.

Two Ohio Department of Education investigations found that many students at the 12,000 student school, who take classes from home on computer, spent little time signed on to ECOT’s online system and barely participated in their classes.

As a result, the department is deducting money from the school to recover $60 million in overpayments to the school for 2015-16 and $20 million for 2016-17. ECOT is challenging those findings to the Ohio Supreme Court, which will hear oral arguments on the case Feb. 13.

With ECOT saying it will be bankrupt by March if those repayments continue, the ESC pulled the plug while the school still has enough money to meet its payroll and debts.

Brenner, a longtime supporter of ECOT and of online schools, said the state should have worked out a payment plan. He was angry that 12,000 students have to seek new schools mid-year, as well as at the state seemingly cutting off a way to recover all $80 million.

“I want the state of Ohio to recover the money,” Brenner said. “The only way to do that is to set up a better repayment plan with ECOT.”

That would mean spreading payments over a few years and charged the school interest, or even just making sure ECOT could finish this school year.

He also asked the department to release ECOT’s offer to restructure payments — one the department denied Thursday just before the ESC’s vote. The Plain Dealer has asked the department since Wednesday for that offer, but the department has only said it will respond in a “reasonable” time, as required by law.

Ron Adler, who heads the charter school advocacy group the Ohio Council for Quality Education, called the department’s stance “shameful” and “far too politicized,” saying that the department “needs to be reeled-in by the General Assembly.”

“They seem to believe that closing charter schools is more important than helping them,” Adler said. “And they refused to alter their demands that could help nearly 3,000 students to graduate this spring — feeling it more important to extract maximum punishment on ECOT. The Department would never dream of treating a traditional district school in this appalling manner.”

ECOT spokesman Neil Clark questioned the state’s refusal to accept a payment compromise right after Thursday’s vote.

“By rejecting an offer that would have allowed our current students to finish the year, Governor Kasich, State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria, (ODE lawyer) Diane Lease, and company showed they were more interested in settling a political score than in doing what’s best for students,” Clark wrote in a press release.

“These bureaucrats wanted blood for ECOT challenging them on their illegal and retro-active rule-making,” he added, referring to ECOT’s main argument in its appeal to the Supreme Court. ECOT maintains that the state illegally changed how it funds e-schools — from just using enrollment as it had for years, to requiring participation in classes.

Kasich, though, told media this week that he has not been involved in any negotiations over ECOT and staying afloat.

“We don’t believe it’s our job to do that,” he said. “It’s not appropriate.”

Rees defended the decision because the state tracked how well students were participating in class. She hoped the state would “strengthen” its funding and accountability system so that mid-year closures like this are rare.

And State Sen. Peggy Lehner, who heads the Senate Education Committee, said the school is to blame, not the state.

“It is a real tragedy that thousands of Ohio children are scrambing today to find a new school,” Lehner said. “However after court after court has determined, ECOT’s failure to educate thousands of children entrusted to its care has brought us to this point.”

She added: “We now have a moral obligation to help the children affected find a suitable school as quickly as possible.”

Students can simply re-enroll in their home school districts, which have said they would welcome students back. But others note that many won’t, since they and their families already became disillusioned with those schools, leading them to enroll in ECOT.

Other online schools are an option. Apryl Morin, who heads charter oversight for the ESC of Lake Erie West, told the board Thursday night that Ohio Virtual Academy, the state’s largest e-school now that ECOT is closed, was able to accept all ECOT students.

Ohio Connections Academy, the next-largest, was ready to accept 300 students immediately, Morin said, and was looking at hiring more teachers to add more students.

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By Patrick O’Donnell

The Plain Dealer, Cleveland (TNS)

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