the Beacon Journal editorial board
An investigation by the Ohio inspector general now is looking into troubling questions about a clearinghouse for online learning materials at Ohio State University, a clearinghouse closely connected to the politically powerful founder of the stateís largest and one of its worst-performing charter schools. The examination is overdue. The state spent millions on the project, called iLearnOhio, but it didnít work as promised and will be phased out at the end of this school year.
At the center of the investigation is William Lager, the founder and operator of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) charter schools. Lager and his allies have been big donors to top Ohio Republicans, who long have supported ECOT despite its dismal record. More, Lager and his lobbyists are working to weaken recently enacted charter school reforms.
Continuing that unfortunate pattern, another Lager company, IQ Innovations, got involved with the clearinghouse at Ohio State after John Kasich entered the governorís office in 2011. The project began in the Strickland administration with a different vendor. But once Kasich was in charge, the work went to IQ Innovations, which had been the second-place bidder.
A recent report by Progress≠Ohio, a Columbus think tank, showed that Lager, employees of his charter-school related companies and his chief lobbyist, Bob Klaffky, a Kasich confidante, donated more than $1.5 million in campaign contributions to Kasich, other Republican candidates and committees from 2010 to 2015.
During roughly the same time, taxpayer money was flowing into the clearinghouse project. Since 2012, according to ProgressOhio, more than $5 million has been spent to staff, improve, oversee and investigate iLearnOhio.
Besides questions about the influence of big money, there is evidence that a supervisor of the troubled iLearnOhio project put pressure on whistleblowers when they questioned the work of IQ Innovations. Among other problems, a part of the project called iLearn contained no texbooks and no publishers were under contract to provide any. The supervisor, John Conley, a former Lager consultant, was appointed by Kasich as vice chancellor of educational technology for the Ohio Board of Regents. In that role, he was in charge of developing the clearinghouse.
Investigations were conducted by Ohio State, but Conley left and refused to answer questions, leaving complaints by the whistleblowers unsubstantiated.
That is why the work of the inspector general is important to clear the air about the flawed iLearnOhio project. Ohio can ill-afford to repeat in any form the mistakes that have plagued charter schools in the state. The recent improvements in oversight and accountability came after years of ridicule and poor performance, students in the end paying an unacceptable price in the form of a substandard education.
Hanging over the iLearnOhio project is the basic question raised in the ProgressOhio report: In IQ Innovations, was William Lager looking to help education in Ohio or did he see another cash cow?