Mother Jones

LEAST LIKELY TO SUCCEED

This company led the Republican charter school revolution. Now, Ohio is out millions of dollars and 12,000 kids are screwed.

THE WEST SIDE of Columbus, Ohio, is a flat expanse of one-story houses, grimy convenience stores, and dark barrooms, and William Lager, in his business wear, cut an unusual figure at the Waffle House on Wilson Road. Every day, almost without fail, he took a seat in a booth, ordered his bottomless coffee, and set to work. Some days he sat for hours, so long that he’d outlast waitress Chandra Filichia’s seven-hour shift and stay on late into the night, making plans and scribbling them down on napkins.

The dreams on the napkins seemed impossibly grandiose: He wanted to create a school unlike anything that existed, a K-12 charter school where the learning and teaching would be done online, and that would give tens of thousands of students an alternative to traditional public schools across the state. It would offer them unheard of flexibility—a teen mom could stay with her child and study, while a kid worried about being bullied could complete lessons at home. And it would be radically cheaper than a traditional classroom, since there would be no buildings to maintain, no teachers’ unions to bargain with. At the time—the late 1990s—it was a revolutionary idea. Lager called it, in the heady days when the internet seemed to promise a solution to every problem, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.

But back then—before Lager had his mansion and lake house, before he rose to become a hero of the school choice movement, before Jeb Bush flew in to give ECOT’s commencement speech and Betsy DeVos helped Lager transform Ohio’s educational landscape—Filichia, the Waffle House waitress, could tell Lager seemed broke. Balding, round-faced, and concentrating intently as he scribbled, he even once tried to pass off photocopies of discount coffee coupons, she says. But he didn’t plan on using a Waffle House as his office forever. “One of these days I’m going to have a real big business,” she remembers him telling her, “and you can come work with me, and you won’t ever have to work anywhere else.”

Lager kept his promise, sort of. His back-of-the-napkin vision soon became an improbable reality, and though she’d never gone to college, in 2000 Lager hired Filichia, and eventually, she says, she became one of ECOT’s registrars. In that role, the 24-year-old had a front-row seat to the company’s growth. As it expanded from an upstart to a juggernaut—its student body was the largest in America in 2015—she began to turn on Lager, angered that the school seemed to provide some students with a sham education, functioned more like a profit center than a pedagogical institution, and ignored its own attendance policies, a fact later corroborated by court documents. “I am a single mom, so obviously I needed money and stayed there,” Filichia told me. “But after so long, when I saw how bad these poor kids were doing, I couldn’t do it anymore.”

In January, after 17 years of operation, the school came to a spectacular end. (Lager and ECOT officials did not reply to repeated requests for comment.) Despite years of critics raising concerns similar to Filichia’s, the school’s demise happened quickly, after two Ohio Department of Education reviews from 2016 and 2017 found that ECOT had over-billed taxpayers by $80 million for thousands of students it couldn’t show were meeting the department’s enrollment standards. As a result, the state ordered the school to begin paying back almost $4 million per month in school funds, which ECOT claimed it was unable to do.

Worried that ECOT wouldn’t have the funds to last out the year, the school’s charter sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, suddenly announced plans to drop the school. Many of ECOT’s 12,000 students learned on the nightly news or read in newspapers that unless an

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