PUTNAM COUNTY — Midway through the recently concluded 2017/2018 school year, Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, the online charter school found to have defrauded the state, abruptly closed. This occurred shortly after the company was ordered to pay back the nearly $80 million it had received from state taxpayers. ECOT has challenged the rulings before the State’s Supreme Court, which held a hearing last February, but has not yet ruled on the issue.

The money paid to ECOT came directly from the school districts where students would have otherwise enrolled. An analysis of Department of Education reports conducted by The Sentinel indicates that school districts within Putnam County paid a total of $355,258.64 to ECOT over the course of the past three school years. The highest single school year amount, $61,723.82, was extracted from the Ottawa-Glandorf school district during the 2016/2017 school year.

As has been widely reported, investigations by the state showed that ECOT was not properly tracking the amount of time students spent learning, and was billing the state for classroom time that did not occur. In many instances, ECOT received a full day’s worth of funding for students who only logged into the company’s system for an hour each day. There were even some reports of enrolled students who did not own computers, and lacked a consistent way of accessing ECOT’s online learning environment at all.

“Innovate, experiment, try new things, and then inform the school district on how to do things better - that was the original idea,” said Dr. Bill Phillis, when speaking of charter schools generally. “The State Legislature never waited to see if it works.”

Dr. Phillis served as Assistant Superintendent of Public Instruction from 1976 to 1992. He is now the Executive Director for The Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding where he continues to track the growth of the charter school industry and its effect on the lives of students. “No evaluations or assessments,” he continued, “We’re now at a point where charter schools [in Ohio] are spending billions - $11 billion so far - with no evaluation.”

According to the issue and legislation tracking website, ballotpedia.org, Ohio’s Charter School law was first passed in 1997 and has been amended several times; most recently in 2014, when charter school operators gained the ability to open a school in any district considered “challenged” by the state. A distinction which applied to 58 out of the 600 districts in Ohio when the change was made.

According to Dr. Phillis, charter school students often have lower grades than comparable public school students, along with lower graduation rates.

“Even within peer groups, where students are compared to similar students throughout the state, and not just within their district, charter schools underperform,” Phylis said.

But what impact did the closing of ECOT have in Putnam County?

“I hope it’s an isolated situation,” says Dr. Jan Osborn, Superintendent of the Putnam County Educational Service Center. “Unfortunately, it was the largest online charter school in the state of Ohio. When you have the largest school has been found to do things illegally, and is repaying the state back money that they have received, it certainly makes one question the value.”

“Now, I know that there are reputable quality online programs,” Dr. Osborn continues, “Even our own local public schools, we use online courses for some students. It does work if they’re properly supported and monitored for the students - and that’s the question.”

Fortunately, Dr. Osborn does not believe that districts within Putnam County struggled to re-enroll students following ECOT’s closure.

“Obviously our schools welcome all students and want the best educational opportunity for them,” Dr. Osborn said. “Our schools took a proactive approach…There was a lot of information out that said, ‘If you have any questions, and you want information on re-enrolling, we’re here to help you.’ I have not heard of anyone who faced significant challenges if they had students come back and re-enter.”

And what of the $355,258.64 sent by Putnam County taxpayers to ECOT these past three years, plus any other monies allocated during previous school years? Will these funds be returned to the local school districts?

“I think [the State] has been looking at how they would go about doing that,” answers Dr. Osborn. “I think that is the goal that the Ohio Dept. of Ed is looking at doing…At this moment, though, I don’t know.”

What other questionable charter schools might still be in operation in Ohio? This topic was raised by Dr. Phillis who noted that of the roughly 600 charter schools founded in Ohio since the law allowing for them was first passed, over 250 have failed and closed.

“Public money, plus private operations, minus regulations, equals corruption. The formula is simple,” says Dr. Phillis. “ECOT is just the one that’s been caught.”

(Those interested in viewing reports for each school district and a summary spreadsheet may do so through the following link to a Google Drive folder: http://bit.ly/Sentinel-ECOT. Please note, you may receive a redirect warning from your web browser. Yes, in this instance, it is safe to continue.)