When ECOT was shut down in January, leaving roughly 12,000 students searching for a new school, Federal Hocking Superintendent George Wood said the 15 students that came from his district fell into one of three categories.
Some students told the district they didn’t know why they were on ECOT’s list, because they weren’t attending school there, he said. Some had credit deficiencies putting them a good two grades behind. And some, he said, couldn’t be found because addresses or phone numbers were bad.
"Not a single student that came back from ECOT was on track to graduate with the appropriate number of credits," Wood said, questioning why it took so long for the state to crack down on the school.
With the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, formerly the state’s largest charter school, being auctioned off in pieces, some schools and longtime ECOT critics are taking stock in how much state money was diverted to the online charter.
Stephen Dyer, education policy fellow with the liberal think tank Innovation Ohio, said $591 million was transferred from Ohio public schools to ECOT over the past six years.
Of that, $62.9 million came from Columbus City Schools, which, by far, had the most students attending ECOT. South-Western had the fourth-largest total ECOT total, $16.2 million.
In all, nine Franklin County districts sent at least $2 million to ECOT over the past six years.
Ohio does not directly fund charter schools, instead subtracting the money from individual districts based on where a charter student lives. Traditional public school officials and advocates have complained for years that the system also diverts local tax revenue to charter schools, in addition to the state funding.
"About half the money did not come from urban districts," Dyer said "When you’re comparing ECOT’s performance, it’s a little disingenuous to only compare it with the big 8 urbans."
As the school ran out of money, ECOT was shut down by its sponsor in January, following orders by the state Board of Education that the school repay the state $80 million for unverified student enrollment over the prior two school years. The state found a number of students were not engaged in learning for the state-minimum 920 hours per school year.
Dominic Paretti, member of the Columbus Board of Education, said Columbus funding to ECOT stretching back to 2002 totaled $116 million — an amount he described as "several levies worth" of money.
"If you add up all that local share of dollars that has flowed to ECOT from Columbus schools taxpayers, it would erase the need for us to possibly ever have to go to those levies," Paretti said.
Columbus had about 1,500 students per year going to ECOT. Several hundred, Paretti said, returned to Columbus after ECOT closed, "but we still have no idea what happened to the rest of these kids. We don’t even know where they’re at."
Rep. Andrew Brenner, R-Powell, chairman of the House Education Committee, questioned the validity of Innovation Ohio's $591 million figure, arguing that the money was used to educate students that didn't attend their home districts.
"If the student is not in the school district, why would the money go to the school district?" Brenner said. "There should be no money owed to anybody. The ECOT teachers would tell me that yes, they in fact were teaching students."
ECOT has become a hot-button political issue, with Democrats sharply criticizing Republican officeholders for failing to act sooner or more decisively to improve oversight of a school whose founder, Bill Lager, was a major GOP contributor.
Auditor Dave Yost, one of those under scrutiny, recently released an audit of ECOT and forwarded to the Franklin County prosecutor and federal authorities evidence of potential criminal fraud by school officials and Lager’s for-profit management company.
Innovation Ohio has posted on its website a rundown of how much money has gone from each district to ECOT over the last six years.
School officials continue to advocate for a funding system where charter schools are directly funded, rather than having the total subtracted from individual districts. Lawmakers have discussed the concept for years, but have not made any serious proposals. The idea likely would require tens if not hundreds of millions in additional state funds.
Officials also questioned why Ohio allows for-profit management companies to run charter schools.
Robert Applebaum said he was in the private steel industry for 34 years before becoming treasurer of Maple Heights Schools nine years ago.
"Anyone who says we should run a public school district like a business is out of touch with reality," he said. "And anyone who says a privately run, for-profit business can educate students better than those entrenched solely in the public education of our students is greatly mistaken."
Dispatch reporter Owen Daugherty contributed to this story.