Did William Lager, the founder of the now defunct Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, have in mind another public cash cow? That question hovered over an investigation launched by the Ohio Office of Inspector General four years ago. On the Friday after Christmas, the office finally issued its findings. The result is a disappointment, the investigation more about bureaucratic lines of authority than whether employees faced retaliation for questioning the quality of the work delivered by a Lager company.
What this involves goes back to Ted Strickland’s years as governor. He made the reasonable decision to set up a statewide clearinghouse for online courses and learning materials. The actual implementation of the iLearnOhio project, established at Ohio State University, landed with his successor, John Kasich. By then, Jim Petro was the chancellor of the state higher education system, and he chose IQ Innovations, owned by Lager, to develop the clearinghouse.
As it was, IQ Innovations finished second in the original bidding process. More, the Strickland administration parted ways with its first choice. So, the Petro selection wasn’t out of line. Concerns surfaced about whether IQ Innovations was performing up to expected standards or earning the more than $5 million in state money flowing its way.
One employee went to the inspector general with a complaint that he and others faced retaliation for blowing the whistle on the poor work of IQ Innovations. The inspector general report concludes the employee did not face retaliatory action “but rather management decisions” within the realm of “internal agency matters.” At the same time, the report cites an earlier investigation by Ohio State in which “three Ohio State employees conveyed credible information that they faced significant retaliation after questioning the performance of IQ.”
Yet the inspector general essentially stops there, arguing that further pursuit would take the office beyond the scope of its authority. Too bad, because it so happens the man in charge of developing the clearinghouse was John Conley, a former Lager consultant appointed by Kasich to serve as vice chancellor of educational technology. Then, there is the eventual abandoning of iLearnOhio, the project proving a bust.
Add to all this the Lager track record of bilking the state. The circumstances surrounding the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow amount to a mammoth scandal, hundreds of millions of dollars going to the online charter school operation even though it rated among the worst performers. For years, Republicans in charge at the Statehouse looked the other way, as political money from Lager poured into party and candidate coffers.
Two convenient weeks after the election in November, Dave Yost, the state auditor and soon-to-be attorney general, issued a report revealing just how high in the Department of Education the effort went to doctor the scores of poor-performing online charter schools. Yost has his own history of warm ties with ECOT. In this instance, he pressed to see the story told, and the findings reinforce the dark presence of Lager.
Obviously, the sums involved in the iLearn Ohio project are much smaller. Still, the principle of public accountability holds. At one point, the governor described as “political” the efforts of state school board members to see an independent investigation of the doctoring allegations. Now it appears that political more aptly applies to the inspector general report. An effort was made but hardly the necessary and probing one, its release coming as the governor heads out the door.
Did Lager seek a cash cow? The investigation doesn’t offer much to indicate he did not.