New shocking information about the way ECOT spent tax dollars. We’ve learned from the state auditor that the now-defunct online charter school paid some students to go to graduation and take state tests.

ECOT shut down in January after the state ordered it to pay back $80 Million dollars for allegedly inflating enrollment numbers. The auditor has handed over his findings to the FBI.

Other electronic schools told NBC4 they would never pay students to take tests to attend commencement.

Students said they were paid $25-$50 dollars to go to graduation and take tests. The money was supposed to cover travel expenses among other things as ECOT’s own policies show.

We spoke with three ECOT students who claim they were paid. 

“Ya, we got paid,” said ECOT graduate Jordan Bender. 

“We got paid $25 for every standardized test we took,” said fellow graduate Jaz Livingstone. 

“My friends they’d be like oh so you were bribed to go like take testing and no it was to cover gas because gas is not cheap,” said Tiffany Groves, a recent ECOT graduate.

The students told NBC4 they received checks to show up at graduation and take state tests.

“It felt a little too good to be true when I was going there like man this is way too easy for me to be getting credit for this, getting paid for it,” said Livingstone.

Since it was for our parents’ gas coverage I felt like I was perfectly okay,” said Groves.

“I never thought that was odd or anything,” said Bender.

ECOT’s own policies show students could get a daily stipend as an incentive to show up for state testing and that, “This stipend/incentive is intended to compensate students/parents for the cost of gasoline, bus fare, babysitting and lost wages.” 

Regarding commencement, ECOT’s policies stated, “It is in ECOT’s best interest to ensure that as many students as is reasonably possible participate in ECOT’s graduation ceremonies.”

Ron Packard operates OHDELA, the Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy, another electronic school in Ohio.

“We would never pay money directly to a student for graduation or for taking a test,” said Packard.

He said he had no idea ECOT was spending money this way.

“Anytime you give cash to a student or family or anything you open yourself up to scrutiny,” said Packard.

The payments may be surprising, but they’re legal.

The state auditor’s office told NBC4 because the policies were approved by ECOT’s board and sponsor, the payments were allowable. It says the Auditor of State’s office does not have the authority to set policy for other entities. It went on to say its auditors used standard audit procedures to review check payments issued by ECOT under this policy during the school’s 2016 audit. It said they did not note any instances of noncompliance with the policy. 

Packard said policies to pay students and the scandal as a whole, have given other E-schools a black eye.

“It has… any time a community school or charter school does something that draws negative attention it casts a negative light on the whole movement unfairly,” said Packard.

The Ohio Virtual Academy, a different Ohio E-school said it had never heard of a school paying students to take tests or go to graduation, and said it would never approve such a policy.

Groves and Bender said ECOT was the right choice for them and said they feel they got good educations. They said they support ECOT despite the ongoing scrutiny.