CINCINNATI — For nearly two decades, an online charter school with a bold name — the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow — grew in Ohio, helped along by the state’s Republicans, who embraced the idea of “school choice” for families.
Conceived on the back of a Waffle House napkin, the school grew to become one of the largest in the state. Republicans cheered on ECOT, as the school was known, and ECOT officials contributed more than $2 million to GOP campaign accounts.
That was before it all crumbled. It was before state regulators figured out the school was being paid to educate thousands of students who never logged in. Before the state ordered the school to repay $80 million. Before the school abruptly closed in January, leaving 12,000 students stranded.
Now, Democrats, who have been locked out of power in Columbus for eight years, are hoping the complex tale of a charter school’s collapse holds their ticket back.
Ohio is one of many places where education is proving pivotal. In Kansas, gubernatorial candidates are debating school spending following deep cuts under the last administration. In Arizona, the governor’s race centers on how to raise teacher salaries and whether to expand school choice programs. In several states, candidates are debating school safety measures and whether to arm teachers.
Across the country and in Washington, school choice is among the most fraught and partisan issues in education, and no state has been more invested in supporting choice than Ohio. That means, Republicans, who were all-in, are now forced to defend their support for a school that crashed and burned.
Democrats are trying to pin the ECOT scandal on Republican candidates for governor, attorney general, auditor and the legislature.
“Usually, we’re talking about things like the economy or the gun issue,” said David B. Cohen, a political scientist at the University of Akron. As for ECOT: “It is at a level of complexity you don’t generally see.”
A million-dollar ad campaign blames the failure on Attorney General Mike DeWine, the GOP nominee for governor. A website lets voters look up how much money was taken from their school districts and given to ECOT. On the stump, legislative candidates are tying the scandal to what they call a “culture of corruption” in state government. A new digital ad for the Democratic candidate for auditor charges his opponent with taking contributions from ECOT and then protecting the school’s “scam.”
Meantime, a court fight between ECOT and the state went all the way to the Supreme Court, and the matter was referred to the FBI for investigation, keeping the school in the news.
“Raise your hand if you’ve heard of ECOT,” Democrat Steve Dettelbach, candidate for attorney general, asked a room of pastors over breakfast on a recent morning at a church in Cincinnati. More than half, maybe two-thirds, of their hands went up. “I’ll tell you what it is, but I want to warn those of you who haven’t heard of it. You’re going to have the same reaction everybody has, which is you’re going to say, ‘No, that didn’t happen that way. That couldn’t have happened.’”
The school’s virtual doors opened for students in kindergarten through 12th grade in 2000. Students were given laptops and invitations to online classes, and each brought tax dollars from their local districts to ECOT.
There were early warnings signs about poor attendance and terrible academic results, but state law governing charter schools was lax, and for many years, no one in power wanted to change that.
Even discussing new curbs could have been read by Republicans as capitulating to Democrats, said state Sen. Peggy Lehner, a Republican who chairs the Ohio Senate Education Committee.
“There are some things we could have done earlier to improve charter school performance that we did not do because it might look like we were being critical or backing off our support,” she said. “Some things were tolerated for too long.”
ECOT’s onetime lobbyist, Neil Clark, a veteran GOP consultant in Columbus, added that school choice was seen as a “movement” that should not be halted. “There was always a lack of desire to have great accountability,” he said.
The result, people in both parties say, was an environment in which ECOT grew almost unchallenged, reaching more than 15,000 students in a single year. Until 2016, the state never checked log-in data to see whether students were actually participating. Once regulators asked that question, in 2016, the school was on the road to demise.
The tale is now finding life on the campaign trail. In two gubernatorial debates, Democrat Richard Cordray charged that DeWine, his opponent, failed to rein in the school as attorney general.
DeWine countered that Cordray was attorney general before him and did nothing about ECOT, whereas he filed a lawsuit to try to recoup tax dollars. “I’m the only one on the stage that has taken action,” he said.
But the suit was not filed until this summer, months after the school closed. “That’s not a ‘protect Ohio’ lawsuit,” Cordray snapped. “That’s [an] ‘I’m running for governor’ lawsuit.”
Still, it is a challenge for Democrats to convey this years-long saga in sound bites that will break through to voters.
Jessica Hegwood, 26, is a waitress at the Waffle House on the west side of Columbus where, two decades ago, ECOT founder William Lager came up with the idea for an electronic school. Like most people at the Waffle House this day, she had heard of ECOT but knew little else.
“ECOT, the online school?” she said when asked. She said her best friend went there and, like many others, never graduated. But Hegwood had not heard about ECOT’s closing, much less why or who was responsible.
Democrats are hoping to change that, and no one more than Dettelbach, the party’s nominee for attorney general. He talks about it everywhere he goes, pinning the scandal on his Republican opponent, state auditor Dave Yost.
As the pastors in Cincinnati munched on fruit and pastries, Dettelbach, a former U.S. attorney from Cleveland, suggested ECOT had bought off Yost with political contributions, a charge Yost denies. Dettelbach gleefully recounted how Yost had given the school an award for financial record-keeping after speaking at its graduation. Yost says ECOT qualified for the award.
Democrats say Yost should have looked more carefully to see if students were logging into school, particularly in 2014, when a whistleblower complaint prompted a review. Instead, Yost used the same method as state regulators — looking at whether students were enrolled, not whether they were participating.
The result: a clean audit.
In an interview, Yost said he had no choice but to follow the rules used at the time by the Ohio Education Department in assessing attendance.
Yost said he has no regrets about speaking at the ECOT graduations and said he still supports the right of families to take tax dollars supporting their children to the school of their choice.
“Every one of those kids . . . got up and did their coursework even though there was no teacher standing there saying, ‘Stop goofing off,’ ” he said. “Those kids are superstars, and I respect the heck out of the work they did. And I’d go talk to them again.”
On the same day Dettelbach made his case in Cincinnati, another group of Democrats was talking about ECOT two hours north.
A large suburban home near Columbus was filled with moms politically activated by Donald Trump’s victory. They heard from two candidates, each pinning the ECOT scandal on Republicans.
One was former congressman Zack Space, running for auditor. Space said his opponent — state Rep. Keith Faber, the former state Senate president — was constantly trying to protect ECOT in the legislature.
In February 2016, for instance, a top Faber aide joined ECOT lobbyists in pressing the Education Department to delay the tougher review the agency had finally ordered, according to court testimony and others. Ultimately, Gov. John Kasich (R) ordered that the review go ahead.
Faber replied that he was not in the meeting but said the agency was treating the school unfairly. “We wanted to know what they were doing and what they were looking for,” he said.
Speaking to about 55 women gathered for wine and politics, Space painted Faber as in ECOT’s pocket. “We want to shine a light on the corruptive influence of money on policy,” he said.
The suburban group, dubbed Positively Blue, began with three women commiserating over dinner. Today, they run a Facebook group and count 240 members, including a few running for office. On this night, they wrote postcards asking voters to support Tiffanie Roberts, a first-time candidate for Union County commissioner.
Roberts, who hosted the gathering, said she is less concerned about the details of who did what when regarding ECOT and more focused on how Republicans allowed so much money to be wasted on an online school when local schools struggle to pay for basic supplies.
“It’s really a tragedy to have them lie and steal and take money from our kids,” she said.