Online charter school renews resistance to repaying $60M in state subsidies


By Jim Provance - The Blade, Toledo, Ohio (TNS)



COLUMBUS — Three years after going dark, what was once Ohio’s largest online charter school on Tuesday will urge the Ohio Supreme Court to save it from a $60 million claw-back of state support for students it couldn’t prove it had educated.

At issue is whether Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow has the right to appeal a State Board of Education’s decision agreeing that too few of its students had actually logged into the online system long enough to qualify as full-time pupils and justify the state subsidies it received.

“In effect, the ruling … allows the Ohio Department of Education and the BOE — administrative agencies — to change their funding standards and criteria willy-nilly, without going through the formal rule-making process, and to then act as prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner as to the retroactive enforcement of such changes — all without the prospect of judicial review,” reads a brief filed by ECOT’s attorneys.

ECOT once was considered a national leader in virtual education. Its case reaches the state high court at a time when many bricks-and-mortar primary and secondary schools are only now fully returning to the classroom full-time from online classes after their teachers and other employees were vaccinated.

ECOT’s attorneys will also make their arguments before the Supreme Court virtually because the court has not been convening in its downtown Columbus courtroom during the pandemic.

ECOT opened in 2000 but closed in January 2018 after the Toledo-based Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West pulled its sponsorship. Roughly 12,000 students scrambled to find other options at the school year’s halfway point.

The school was held up as a poster child for claims of generally lax state oversight of charter schools and, in particular, the political clout of major players in the industry. While they are public schools, charter schools are freed of some of the regulations governing their more traditional brethren.

ECOT contends the state changed its interpretation of what constitutes a full-time online student and then retroactively applied it to prior years. As the state withheld ongoing subsidies for current students to gradually recover past overpayments, ECOT entered bankruptcy, lost its sponsor, shut down, and saw its assets sold.

“…because of the BOE’s funding determination (which was not issued until after the school years in question), the State of Ohio is seeking to bankrupt numerous long-time educators simply because they happened to work for an on-line community school that had received funding consistent with what was, at the time, long-standing guidance from and the long-standing practice of the Ohio Department of Education,” the school’s brief reads. “Unbelievable.”

The state counters that the decision of the partly elected, partly appointed State Board of Education to uphold the Department of Education’s $60 million claw-back decision is not appealable under state law. It argues that ECOT has had multiple bites at this apple with several courts, including the Supreme Court, which previously ruled against the school.

“ECOT has lost these challenges at every turn, because every court and administrative officer that has ruled on ECOT’s claims has rejected its invitation to ignore statutes and settled precedent,” its brief states.

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By Jim Provance

The Blade, Toledo, Ohio (TNS)

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