There was a serious bump on the road to what were billed as "record-breaking celebrations" of charter schools and other forms of "school choice" this week. News outlets in Ohio reported the largest charter school closure ever in that state, and perhaps the nation. This abruptly sent over 12,000 students and their families scrambling to find new schools midyear.
The school, an online charter called the Electronic School of Tomorrow (ECOT), owed the state nearly $80 million for inflating its enrollment numbers and overcharging the state for thousands of students that never attended full-time. Negotiations on a payment plan with the state fell through, and the school's sponsor, which it needed to operate legally, decided it couldn't carry the school.
“My kids went to bed last night crying,” said a Cincinnati mom whose children attended the school.
"To just rip them out of the environment they are most used to," complained another mom whose children had attended the school for eight years. "They have relationships with their teachers," she said in a news video posted on the ECOT Facebook page.
Older students seem to have it the roughest, especially those nearing graduation, who must ensure credit hours and courses align to their college plans. "A nightmare" is what one student called their mad scramble for transcripts and other paperwork. "Twelve-thousand people yelling for records all at once.”
A Wave of Abandoned Students
The fallout from ECOT's failure is all but certain to continue as a wave of abandoned charter students washes up in public schools across the Buckeye State, where they may be ill-prepared for classwork due to the online school's poor academic standing.
Yet in kicking off the nationwide "celebration" of charters – an annual event called National School Choice Week – President Trump said nothing about the unfolding charter-school disaster in Ohio, proclaiming instead, "School choice helps alleviate common hindrances to success and creates the space necessary for students' aspirations to flourish."
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Trump's biggest proponent of charter schools and of all things choice, addressed a School Choice Week rally, led by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, in the nation's capital. She is the first Secretary of Education to do so. “I hope you will go out from here and you will tell your stories,” DeVos exhorted the crowd. Yet no one at the event, including DeVos, appeared to want to tell the stories from Ohio.
And as scheduled school choice events rolled out, news outlets across the nation happily reported one unbalanced story after another about the raucous events and speeches at school choice events, with nary a mention about the debacle in Ohio.
Only one prominent charter school enthusiast, Nina Rees of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, addressed ECOT's closure. She praised it, calling the state's actions "a good day for those who believe in the importance of closing poor-performing schools,"
Both Rees's comment on the Ohio charter school failure and the inattention to ECOT's collapse in School Choice Week events seem to confirm that fans of school choice and the charter-school industry, seem to think things are working just fine. What's more, they'll argue that their business model implies the need for some schools to fail, so the Ohio closure actually proves school choice is working.
But in a public education system guided by choice, what happens to the parents and students who choose wrong?
A Billion Dollars for What?
The failed Ohio online charter school, which operated for 16 years, likely cost the state over a billion dollars, estimates former state education administrator Bill Phills in the Columbia Dispatch.
The school got into trouble for inflating attendance at the outset, according to the article, while using an aggressive marketing campaign, with taxpayer dollars, to keep consumer interest high.
When a district superintendent reported some students in the online charter hadn't received computers deep into the school year, weren't required to report to a central computer lab, or could "go in once every 20 days, log on, do nothing and then go away for another 20 days,” few state leaders seemed to care. The superintendent surmised the lack of response was due to the generous campaign donations ECOT's owner, William Lager, who grew rich from the school, gave to GOP politicians protecting them.
Longtime Ohio charter school watchdog Stephen Dyer agrees. "Lager himself gave more than $1.2 million to primarily legislative candidates since 2000, less than 5 percent of which went to Democrats," he writes on his blog for progressive think tank Innovation Ohio. "And while the school is now shut down, what is clear is that the reason it remained open as long as it did was because the school had powerful allies and protectors in state government," he concludes.
"Until very recently ECOT seemed untouchable," writes James Pogue in an long form article about ECOT for Mother Jones. But now that the school has seemingly been shut down, "Many of the Ohio students and parents who got caught up in the ECOT experiment already feel like they’re living with the consequences," he concludes.
For many of those students and parents, especially those now sent scrambling to find a new school, the consequences are likely not good.
Public Schools to the Rescue
The largest charter school closing before the ECOT debacle was the mass exodus from Imagine charter schools in St. Louis. As I reported for the Washington Post in 2007, Imagine Schools, a for-profit chain of 69 brick-and-mortar schools currently operating in 12 states, moved into the city and opened four new charters. By 2011, Imagine had six schools enrolling nearly 4,000 students, over 10 percent of the district’s student population.
District officials and local reporters noted Imagine’s students performed consistently worse than city and state averages on standardized tests, yet the company was reaping huge profits from its real estate business.
Missouri state officials, alarmed at Imagine’s fiscal stunts and persistently low performance, closed all six schools in 2012, sending 3,800 students from closed schools to district schools that needed millions in new funds to upgrade and outfit buildings to accommodate the influx.
It's fortunate, those students had public schools to take them in. The same is true in Ohio.
"About 95 percent of Ohio's 600-plus school districts have students at ECOT," an Ohio news outlet reports, with the Columbus and Cleveland districts topping 1,200 and 800 students, respectively.
It's impossible to estimate how many of ECOT's former students will decide to stay with a different online school. But these schools are not likely good choices either. Ohio's online charters tend to preform far worse than their counterpart brick and mortar schools do, with student losing between 75 days to a full year in academic learning, according to a new study.
Also, the number of the ECOT students who will end up in Ohio's brick-and-mortar charters isn't clear because many charter school do not have to accept student transfers at midyear even if they have room, a process known as backfilling.
Many of the receiving public schools braced to accept these students already struggle with overcrowding. No doubt, districts will be taking in students who have never attended one of their schools, and will therefore, need to have screening for learning disabilities, English language proficiency, and other special needs. Many schools may have to hire new specialized staff to meet these students' needs.
And the fact these transferring online charter students are used to taking classes online and not in classrooms will pose new problems for acclimating them to a traditional public school.
At least one district, Cleveland, has set up a special task force to meet the challenge.
“We adjust," a public school administrator from another district is quoted in a local news outlet. "That’s what we do."
The public schools' response to the charter closure disaster in Ohio is reminiscent of stories and images from Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and California recently, where public schools were some of the few institutions to stay open in the disastrous wake of hurricanes and wildfires, and public school teachers were on the frontlines to help desperate families.
Yet, school choice proponents declare public schools the problem with American education?
No doubt, many parents who chose ECOT strongly believe it was the best choice for their children. That may be true for many of them. And those are the only parents you're going to hear from during National School Choice Week. But what about the parents whose stories aren't so happy?
Of course, public schools sometimes close too. But we don't expect them to. In fact, public schools have long been the default backstop in communities everywhere.
Charter schools, on the other hand, which are driven by market-based principles, seem to guarantee a certain portion are expected to fail. Do you really think that is something to celebrate?