EDlection 2018: Could an Online Education Scandal in Ohio Cost the GOP the Governor’s Office?
Regardless of the results of Tuesday’s primary vote in the 2018 Ohio governor’s race, which has gained significant attention nationwide, the electorate will not be introduced to any new candidates.
Richard Cordray, a Democrat, and Mike DeWine, a Republican, both former attorneys general of Ohio, have emerged as the frontrunners after many years in the public eye. However, they will face challenges from opponents with similar or even greater name recognition. Dennis Kucinich, a former Cleveland mayor and eight-term congressman, has criticized Cordray from the left, while Lieutenant Governor Mary Taylor’s campaign, which mirrors President Trump’s style, has clearly unsettled DeWine, who has extensive experience in statewide races.
All four candidates have built extensive careers in preparation for an opportunity like this. However, their time in the spotlight is being overshadowed by a wide-ranging scandal that has emerged alongside them – a scandal that could potentially influence the outcome of several major elections, making Ohio a unique state where education plays a significant role.
This is why a race taking place in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s historic victory in 2016, and featuring involvement from a Middle Eastern dictator, may hinge on local issues such as a closed charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT); its political supporters, including many prominent Republicans in the state; and the financial transactions that occurred between them.
According to Stephen Dyer, an education commentator, the ECOT scandal could become a key issue that surpasses national concerns. Dyer, who has observed Ohio politics as a reporter, a former Democratic state representative, and now an education fellow at the progressive think tank Innovation Ohio, believes that the Republican gubernatorial primary has been one of the most fiercely fought in recent memory.
He states, "I think it’s a clear indication of where the Republican Party currently stands. Both candidates are attempting to demonstrate their alignment with Trump. There’s no doubt that this Republican primary is intense and brutal. Candidates like Mike DeWine don’t spend millions of dollars on TV ads unless they believe it’s necessary."
Despite DeWine’s long political career, including serving as a congressman, lieutenant governor, and United States senator, before becoming attorney general, he has not been immune to his opponent’s strong attacks. Taylor’s campaign has run multiple ads portraying DeWine as weak on gun rights and immigration, prompting a response from DeWine in the final weeks of the primary, where he has branded himself as a "rock-solid conservative".
Although Taylor has managed to decrease DeWine’s favorability among GOP voters, she still lags significantly behind in the latest polls, by as much as 32 percentage points. The focus on education issues has largely diminished in light of the broader culture war, though both candidates express support for Ohio’s charter school system. Taylor has criticized Common Core and annual testing mandates, while DeWine has emphasized enhancing vocational training for K-12 students, reviving conservative themes.
Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy at the right-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, explains that candidates are primarily targeting their base during the primary, and significant education discussions are expected to take place closer to the general election.
On the Democratic side, Cordray and Kucinich have been more explicit in their plans for Ohio schools and childcare. Cordray has centered his education vision on universal access to pre-K education, warning that without high-quality early education, Ohio will not be able to compete with other states. He has also proposed making community college tuition-free, a concept gaining traction within the national party.
Kucinich has also prioritized lowering higher education costs, and his main role in K-12 education has been as an opponent of charter schools. He embarked on a statewide tour last year, criticizing Ohio’s troubled charter sector as a "multibillion-dollar boondoggle" and expressing his commitment to "saving our public school system".
Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, who aspires to become Ohio’s next governor, has faced challenges due to her city’s school system.
However, the former congressman’s progress has come to a halt recently due to the emergence of damaging revelations about his career in media. He recently expressed his support for President Trump’s recent implementation of tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum on Fox News. Even worse, he accepted approximately $20,000 last year from a pro-Syrian advocacy group with sympathies towards the tyrant Bashar al-Assad, whom he met with in January of the previous year. Additionally, he made appearances on the Russian propaganda network RT, which is widely regarded as a tool used by Vladimir Putin in his information war against the United States.
In April, Kucinich announced his decision to return the donation from the Syrian group, stating, "The organization never disclosed any interest other than human rights and never specifically informed me of their position on or interest in the Syrian regime."
Regarding his appearances on RT, Kucinich’s spokesperson, Andy Juniewicz, explained, "Dennis, along with several other prominent figures, has appeared on RT over the years, including Bernie Sanders, Barney Frank, Bill Richardson, and others. He has never received payment from RT for any of those interviews, and nothing he has said on RT conflicts with his statements as a member of Congress representing the people of Northeast Ohio."
For 20 of the past 24 years, Ohio Republicans have held control over the governor’s mansion and both houses of the state legislature. Despite Ohio’s voters favoring Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, the state is still considered a favorable ground for local Republican politicians. Given the state’s Republican-leaning tendencies and DeWine’s well-regarded reputation statewide, the attorney general is expected to have a solid advantage in the upcoming November elections.
However, the prevailing political narrative this spring could hinder his chances. Specifically, the ongoing court battle surrounding the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) has garnered significant attention since the school closed in January following allegations of fraud. If the controversy continues to gain traction, it could negatively impact other Republican candidates.
Established in 2000, ECOT quickly became Ohio’s largest online charter school, ultimately enrolling 15,000 students. Its academic performance was consistently below par, even when compared to underperforming school districts such as Cleveland and Dayton. Nevertheless, many families viewed the digital learning format as the only viable option for students who struggled in traditional classrooms.
In 2016, the Ohio Department of Education conducted an audit which revealed that ECOT’s financial practices were even more questionable than its academic results. The audit found that the school had overcharged the state by $79 million during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years. ECOT billed for academic services provided to numerous students who logged on for an hour or less per day.
Following the order for the school to refund the wrongfully obtained funds, ECOT closed its doors in January, resulting in the layoff of hundreds of employees. While the school is currently appealing the repayment order to the Ohio Supreme Court, the situation has continued to deteriorate since its closure. An anonymous whistleblower has alleged that ECOT’s leadership knowingly manipulated attendance figures using specialized software acquired after previous accusations of dishonest billing.
The Columbus Dispatch reported that severance payments to terminated employees were contingent on the signing of nondisclosure agreements, a condition which the whistleblower refused to comply with. This revelation has raised inquiries into the amount of public funding spent on appeasing disgruntled former staff members, which appears to be quite substantial.
Numerous top Republicans in the state find themselves implicated in this quagmire as they have received substantial contributions from ECOT’s leadership over the years. Bill Lager, the school’s founder, distributed $2.1 million in political donations throughout the school’s existence, with 91 percent of that sum believed to have been contributed to Republicans. While Democrats also accepted funds from Lager, particularly during their tenure in the governor’s mansion from 2006 to 2010, the amount they received pales in comparison to the GOP’s share.
"The ECOT issue will be a major concern in the fall – not only for the governor’s race, but also for almost every other race in existence," stated Innovation Ohio’s Dyer. "Because there are extensive connections between this school and nearly every Republican candidate who has run for state office since around 2004. And all these individuals are currently running."
When approached for a comment, a spokesperson for the DeWine campaign stated via email that the Ohio Department of Education has a responsibility to ensure that all schools in Ohio are adhering to the law and regulations and prioritizing the well-being of the children. They further emphasized that under a DeWine administration, the department will actively hold every type of school in the state accountable to our youth. On the other hand, campaign officials representing Yost did not respond to the comment request.
To complicate matters, Patrick DeWine, the son of DeWine, currently serves as an Ohio Supreme Court justice and is facing multiple disciplinary charges due to alleged ethical violations. Although he received a $3,600 donation from ECOT founder Bill Lager during his previous campaign, which is not part of the charges against him, Patrick DeWine has faced criticism for his refusal to recuse himself from the case that will determine the future of ECOT.
The collapse of ECOT, which resulted in numerous students being left without a school mid-year, is arguably the most dramatic indication of Ohio’s failed attempt at holding charter schools accountable. Many operators took advantage of the state’s lenient regulations regarding governance, running schemes similar to ECOT on a smaller scale. These operators, who were supposed to oversee the schools, ended up selling services to them instead. This loose approach, combined with poor academic performance, led Ohio to gain the infamous nickname of the "Wild Wild West" of school choice according to a representative from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.
Mike Fordham from the Fordham organization, who has been vocal about criticizing ECOT, advised against making sweeping generalizations about the costly corruption within the school. He points out that the school’s fraudulent practices were eventually exposed. However, he does acknowledge that education funds have always been involved in politics, mentioning how teachers’ unions have historically contributed financially. Despite the flow of money, the closure of the largest school in the state suggests that political protection was not a wise investment.
Considering recent political history, there is potential cause for concern: the last time Republicans lost power in Ohio was in 2006, following a statewide corruption scandal involving political donors. This occurred during a challenging election cycle for the national party. With anti-Trump sentiments prevailing across the nation and Democrats achieving victories in special elections, similar circumstances could arise in November.