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EDlection 2018: Could an Online Education Scandal in Ohio Cost the GOP the Governor’s Office?

By Kevin Mahnken | May 6, 2018

No matter the outcome of Tuesday’s primary vote in the 2018 Ohio governor’s race, already one of the most closely watched in the country, the electorate won’t be greeted with any fresh faces.

Democrat Richard Cordray and Republican Mike DeWine, the state’s two most recent attorneys general, have emerged as frontrunners after decades in the public eye. To win, they’ll have to fend off challengers with comparable or greater name recognition. Former Cleveland mayor and eight-term congressman Dennis Kucinich has needled Cordray from the left, while Lieutenant Governor Mary Taylor’s Trumpian bid has clearly spooked DeWine, the veteran of seven statewide races.

All four candidates have built lengthy careers in anticipation of an opportunity like this. But their time on the stage is quickly being overshadowed by a far-reaching scandal that has developed right alongside them — one that makes Ohio the rare state in which education could sway the outcome in several major elections.

That’s why a race occurring in the aftershock of Donald Trump’s historic 2016 victory, featuring a cameo by a Middle Eastern dictator, may hinge on the most parochial of concerns: a shuttered charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT); its political patrons, including most of the notable Republicans in the state; and the money that passed between them.

“This ECOT thing is going to be one of those local issues that trumps national issues,” Stephen Dyer, an education commentator, told The 74. “No pun intended.”

The Players

Dyer has observed Ohio politics as a reporter for the Akron Beacon-Journal, a former Democratic state representative, and now an education fellow at the progressive think tank Innovation Ohio. The Republican gubernatorial primary, he says, has been one of the hardest-fought in recent memory.

“I think it’s pretty indicative of where the Republican Party is right now,” he said. “Both [candidates] are trying to prove their Trump bona fides. There’s no question this Republican primary is brutal and vicious. Guys like Mike DeWine don’t drop millions of dollars on TV unless they think they need to.”

After a lifetime in politics, DeWine is essentially Mr. Ohio, previously serving as a congressman, lieutenant governor, and United States senator before his current stint as attorney general. But his high profile hasn’t spared him from his rival’s bracing attacks. A series of advertisements from the Taylor campaign has painted him as weak on gun rights and immigration, provoking a response from DeWine in the closing weeks of the primary depicting him as a “rock-solid conservative.”

Though Taylor has succeeded somewhat in driving down DeWine’s favorability among GOP voters, she is still lagging by as much as 32 percentage points in the latest polls. Education issues have largely receded amid the culture war broadsides, though both candidates support the state’s charter school sector. Picking up on formerly potent conservative themes, Taylor has inveighed against Common Core and annual testing mandates, while DeWine has focused on augmenting work training for K-12 students.

“When you’re trying to win the primary, you’re speaking more to your base,” said Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy at the right-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “I don’t think there have been many general election messages yet. My hope is there will be more significant education discussions as we move toward the summer.”

On the Democratic side, Cordray and Kucinich have been more explicit in their plans for Ohio schools and childcare. Echoing his fellow Democrats around the country, Cordray has centered his education vision on universal pre-K access, warning that if the state doesn’t assure high-quality early education, “we will not compete with the rest of the country.” He has further proposed making community college free, another idea that has gained steam with the national party.

Kucinich has also emphasized lowering higher education costs. In the K-12 realm, his primary role has been as an anti-charter agitator. Last year, while still contemplating a run, he embarked on a tour around the state lambasting the state’s troubled charter sector as a “multibillion-dollar boondoggle” and declaring that he intended to “save our public school system.”

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His candidacy’s hyper-progressive bent, along with his residual star power from two failed presidential runs, has bought Kucinich the support of Our Revolution, an activist group associated with the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party. Their organizing has made the primary campaign a tighter affair than most observers anticipated.

But the former congressman’s momentum has stalled in recent days as some damaging details have emerged about his career as a media personality. He recently praised President Trump’s recent tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum on Fox News. Worse, he accepted about $20,000 last year from an advocacy group sympathetic to Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad (whom he met with last January). He also appeared on the Russian propaganda network RT, which has been called a tool of Vladimir Putin’s information war against the United States.

In April, Kucinich announced that he would return the Syrian group’s donation, saying, “The organization did not identify itself as having any interest other than human rights and never specifically mentioned to me their interest in or position regarding the Syrian regime.”

As for the RT appearances, Kucinich spokesman Andy Juniewicz told The 74, “Dennis and a number of other prominent figures over the years have appeared on RT — including Bernie Sanders, Barney Frank, Bill Richardson, and others. He has never been paid by RT for any of those interviews, and nothing he’s ever said on RT would conflict with anything he’s said as a member of Congress representing the people of Northeast Ohio.”

The Scandal

Ohio Republicans have controlled the governor’s mansion and both houses of the state legislature for 20 out of the past 24 years. Even after its voters favored Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, Ohio is rightfully seen as one of the most reliably friendly states to local Republican politicians. Given the state’s red tendencies and DeWine’s distinguished reputation statewide, the attorney general should be handily favored this November.

But the dominant political narrative this spring may handicap his chances. Specifically, the messy court battle around the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow has made headlines since the school closed in January amid allegations of fraud. If it continues to make noise, the controversy could drag down much of the GOP’s ticket.

After opening in 2000, ECOT soon became Ohio’s largest online charter school and eventually enrolled 15,000 students. Its academic performance was long seen as substandard even in comparison to underperforming school districts like Cleveland and Dayton, but many families saw the digital learning format as the only option for students who struggled in typical classrooms.

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In 2016, an audit ordered by the Ohio Department of Education discovered that ECOT’s financial practices were even more questionable than its academic results. The department found that the school had overcharged the state by $79 million in the 2015–16 and 2016–17 school years, billing for academic services provided to thousands of students who had logged on for an hour or less per day.

After state authorities ordered the school to repay the ill-gotten funds, the charter closed its doors in January, laying off hundreds of employees. It is still appealing the repayment order to the Ohio Supreme Court, but the news has only gotten worse since its closure. An anonymous whistleblower has claimed that ECOT’s leadership intentionally juked its attendance figures using special software it acquired after previously being accused of dishonest billing.

According to The Columbus Dispatch, severance payouts to terminated employees were conditioned upon the signing of nondisclosure agreements, which the whistleblower refused to do. That revelation has led to questions about just how much a publicly funded entity spent to pay off disgruntled former staff members — of which there were apparently many.

In the middle of the quagmire stand many of the state’s top Republicans, who have taken huge sums from the school’s leadership over the years. The school’s founder, Bill Lager, distributed $2.1 million in political contributions over the school’s lifespan, 91 percent of which is thought to have been given to Republicans. Democrats accepted money from Lager as well, especially when they controlled the governor’s mansion between 2006 and 2010, but the amount they received was paltry compared to the GOP’s share.

“The ECOT thing is going to be a huge issue in the fall — not just for the governor’s race, but almost every other race that’s out there,” said Innovation Ohio’s Dyer. “Because there are such close connections from this school to nearly every Republican candidate who’s run for state office since, basically, 2004. And all those guys are running now.”

Indeed, the ECOT connections extend far down the GOP ticket. Secretary of State Jon Husted, who is DeWine’s running mate, received an honorary degree from ECOT. Auditor Dave Yost, currently running for attorney general, has spoken at ECOT graduations. DeWine, who could have initiated investigations into the school in his capacity as attorney general, never stepped up. (Neither did Democrat Cordray, who served in that office until his defeat at the hands of DeWine.)

Reached for comment, a DeWine campaign spokesperson said via email, “The Ohio Department of Education has a responsibility to ensure every school in Ohio is following the law and regulations and putting kids first. Under a DeWine administration, ODE will vigorously hold every kind of school in Ohio accountable to our children.” Campaign officials for Yost did not respond to a request for comment.

To make things even more complicated, DeWine’s son, Patrick, is an Ohio Supreme Court justice currently facing a range of disciplinary charges for alleged ethical lapses. Though he accepted a $3,600 donation from ECOT founder Bill Lager during his last campaign (which is not included in the charges against him), the younger DeWine has drawn criticism for refusing to recuse himself from the case that will determine ECOT’s future.

ECOT’s collapse, which left thousands of students stranded mid-year, is perhaps the most dramatic symptom of Ohio’s failed efforts at charter school accountability. Taking advantage of the state’s lax rules around governance, many operators ran ECOT-like schemes on a smaller scale, with authorizers selling services to the very schools they were supposed to oversee. The fast-and-loose culture, along with abysmal academic performance, led to the state infamously being dubbed the “Wild Wild West” of school choice by a representative of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

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Fordham’s Aldis, who hasn’t shied from criticizing ECOT, cautioned against drawing overly broad conclusions about its costly patronage. After all, he says, the school’s funny numbers eventually caught up with it.

“Education dollars have always flowed into politics,” he said. “Teachers unions have long put money into politics, so the idea that this is a new thing is inaccurate. Clearly, there’ve been dollars flowing, but despite all those dollars flowing, the largest school in the state closed down. So if politics was going to protect them, then it wasn’t a very good investment.”

Still, recent political precedent is potentially ominous: The last time Republicans were swept from power in Ohio, in 2006, it was in the wake of another statewide corruption scandal involving political donors, during a bad election cycle for the national party. With anti-Trump winds blowing nationally, and Democrats racking up wins in special elections, those circumstances could repeat this November.

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