ECOT’s stipends are revealed and everyone’s pointing fingers

Ohio Statehouse Newsroom

COLUMBUS (WCMH) — It is campaign season here in Ohio. The State Auditor Dave Yost is running for State Attorney General this fall and the Democratic Party is in full gear attempting to discredit him in the eyes of the voters as much as he is trying to look as good as possible.

Enter ECOT, the subject of what could become one of the greatest scandals in Ohio history.

For years the school operated in the State and due to a lack of transparency suspicions have been raised that millions of taxpayer dollars may have been misappropriated by the school and those in charge.

No one knows for sure exactly how much was intentionally taken through efforts like inflating student enrollment numbers, and depending on who you talk to there are different estimates out there.

What is known for sure is that over the course of two school years at least $80 million is suspected to have been taken in this way and there is an effort to get that money back underway.

Who is ultimately to blame for this fiasco? There is plenty to go around.

The obvious place to start is with the people connected to the school that allowed it to happen or facilitated the bad actors.

And because this is an election year everyone wants to end up on the right side of this mess.

But someone running for office is bound to take some blame, especially if they received campaign contributions in the past from ECOT, its officials and affiliates.

That list is a long one and does not exclusively belong to one political party.

Over the years, many Republicans and Democrats and their parties received campaign donations from ECOT; some more than others.

But a few politicos running for high profile offices have been painted with a target of ire, most of them are Republican and the organization of that ire is predominately coming from Democratic Party sources and affiliates.

Auditor Yost is one such individual. The auditor has a long history with ECOT, even beyond accepting campaign donations. He spoke at graduations, and his office gave out awards to the school for being able to check off boxes that would result in such an award being presented just like it has with countless other organizations it audits.

Some question if those awards actually mean anything since they are relatively easy to get. Which becomes a problem when you have those awards then used in a way that provides the organizations actual capital through potential misrepresentation.

Let’s say you won an award for having “excellent” apples and all you had to do to get the award was to make sure your apples were washed, dried and shiny. And then you took that award and posted it for the world to see that you had “excellent” apples. The result would be some people would take that award at face value and come buy your apples.

 But what if your washed, dried, and shiny apples were actually rotten at the core? Are they really excellent? Of course not, but you still win the award because whether they are rotten is not part of the process for determining whether you won the award in the first place.

So you have an award that doesn’t carry the correct weight based on the public perception of the name on the award, mainly because there is a dissonance between what the award is labeled and what the term generally means to people.

As such, it is easy for Democrats to be outraged when Republican Yost’s office has given awards to ECOT for excellence when the school was clearly anything but; and they are using it against him.

Now, with the revelation that ECOT was issuing a stipend to students and parents for gas to travel to sites to take required standardized tests and to attend graduation ceremonies, Yost is under attack again.

State Representative Teresa Fedor has been a hawk on online charter schools. For years she has kept a close eye on what was going on and has tried repeatedly to bring up the inherent problems.

She says, blames Yost for allowing the school to use taxpayer dollars on these stipends.

At face value that is a bit of a stretch because Yost has no actual authority over what is in the charters by-laws.

It should also be noted that what the school was doing is not illegal. There is nothing in the law that prevents them from providing stipends in this way.

Some are trying to raise questions about the ethics of it all, but we’ll come back to that.

What Fedor is saying in an abstract way is that Yost is responsible because he is part of the problem in her opinion; he is a Republican.

Because Yost is a republican in a place of relatively high power being a statewide elected official,  he should have made the party fix the problems with charter schools, in her opinion.

Mind you Yost holds no actual leverage to make that happen, but let’s not get bogged down in the details.

What he could have done is lobbied other Republicans in the legislature to get on board the fix-it train.

Did he do this? Who knows maybe he tried, maybe he didn’t. We do know he put forward recommendations on how to fix the problems and that those solutions were set aside by his party colleagues in the legislature until recently.

It should be noted that Yost has been the State Auditor for a large portion of ECOT’s existence and while he has audited them several times it is only recently that he has been able to come up with evidence of what appears to be duplicity. 

Some don’t buy that he couldn’t have done this sooner and accuse him of looking the other way in exchange for campaign donations that helped keep him in his political seat. 

There were campaign donations, but anything further implied is supposition at this time due to lack of contrary evidence.

While Fedor is calling on Yost to take the blame for ECOT’s use of stipends, his office is pointing a finger right back.

They say that Fedor should have used her legislative authority to pass legislation to fix the problems and prevent this from happening.

But let’s be honest, Fedor is a Democrat and because they have been in the minority and at the whim of the Republicans in the legislature for years, it seems a bit disingenuous to say that such authority holds much weight.

Democrats are lucky to get any legislation that is solo sponsored by a Democrat and more significant than a license plate, memorial day, or honorary recognition through the Republican controlled legislature.

I pause for the obligatory Republicans counterpoint; most bills pass the legislature with bi-partisan support.

In other words, Fedor with her immensely miniscule amount of legislative authority was supposed to march into the Republican leadership’s office and demand that something be done about ECOT, right?

Not likely to happen; but why not the entire Democratic legislative body? Still not good enough, they are outnumbered 2-1 and are almost never “needed” to pass a bill with rare exceptions; most recently the payday lending reform bill stands as an example of Republican discord bridged by Democratic votes to pass a bill.

Very little of serious legislative significance that concerns Democrats is given a second thought at the Statehouse currently.

But here’s the thing, it wasn’t always this way.

There was a time when Democrats had more power than they do now and the problems with charter schools were not fixed. They had the Governorship and the House, but the problems persisted.

Fedor is upfront about that. She says efforts were made but they did not go deep enough. Ultimately, she still blames the Republicans overall.

So, whose fault is it that ECOT could use taxpayer dollars in this apparently completely legal way? Outside of the court of public opinion does that matter?

Which brings us to the ethics and the optics of it all; should taxpayer dollars be able to be used to give families assistance in the form of money for fuel for their vehicles to drive to and from requires tests and for the privilege of walking in a commencement ceremony they earned the right to be at?

Sure if they were paying kids who didn’t earn their diploma to go to a ceremony they had no right to be at and to participate, that would be one thing; but from what we are able to tell, we are talking about kids who did graduate, who did earn their degree, and lived far enough away from the ceremony location that the school felt it should help that family get there.

Some people will say, but my school district doesn’t pay for me to drive to my commencement ceremony. And those on the other side of the argument will say, yes but you don’t live two hours from where it’s being held.

Because ECOT is an online charter school with students all over the state, some of them will live quite a distance from both testing locations and graduation sites.

Conversely, kids attending normal public schools typically live relatively close to these same kinds of locations.

Still, concerned citizens will point out that this stipend could have been used as an incentive to get kids to attend the graduation ceremonies which were in turn used in part as a dog and pony show to make the school appear as if it was successful, when in reality it had the worst four year graduation rate in the country.

Outside of a direct confession to the contrary, the school’s true intention will never be known; did they just want to look good for political backers, or make sure that families could enjoy their child’s earned success, or both?

One final thing on stipends; there use does not appear to have originated with ECOT.

According to State Representative Andrew Brenner, stipends are used here in Central Ohio to help some poor families that need to drive their students to traditional charter schools.

While their use may not have been widely known, or discussed, framing the use of the stipends in this fashion through ECOT, which cannot defend itself because the school is now defunct, is problematic.

Currently, the Democratic Party is using the revelation that ECOT used these stipends as a way to further their narrative about the ECOT scandal.

They are saying things like, “…remember those big graduation portraits ECOT used to share around? Well… those kids were paid to be there.”

Some of them, yes, but all the kids? They could not know for sure. The sentence lacks the context that the kids who were “paid” to be there may not have been able to be somewhere they earned the right to be otherwise. It is worded specifically to get the reader to have an emotional reaction, and as such misleads with half-truths. It was also written by a political party, which in itself is not overly surprising as it wants you to have an emotional reaction.

Here’s the thing, the ECOT scandal is very real.

The school owes the state tens of millions of dollars, and there is plenty enough blame to go around for how and why we got to this point.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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