COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio’s multimillion-dollar legal dispute with one of the nation’s largest online charter schools is seeping into the state’s top political races as the matter moves toward a showdown in court and fuels broader discussions about financial and academic accountability.

The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, or ECOT as it’s commonly known, has become a political football, with Democrats accusing Republicans of accepting contributions from ECOT affiliates and not holding the poor-performing e-school and other charters to higher standards with better oversight. On the GOP side, the state auditor campaigning to become attorney general has become a vocal advocate for recouping state overpayments to ECOT and other schools.

Raising the issue early in the race could help lesser-known Democrats get attention and connect to their base as they’re fundraising, University of Dayton political scientist Dan Birdsong said. Education tends to be important to voters. But whether ECOT stays in the campaign conversation into 2018 depends on multiple factors, including how ECOT’s case unfolds and whether candidates cast it as an individual case or in broader debate about school choice or accountability, Birdsong said.

“If it’s not just ECOT but it’s other charter schools in Ohio, then that may be more galvanizing of an issue around education,” Birdsong said.

The state concluded ECOT should repay $60 million because it didn’t sufficiently document student participation to justify its full 2015-16 funding, and has said ECOT could owe nearly $20 million from the following year. The school of some 14,000 students is challenging how the Ohio Department of Education tallied student log-ins, arguing that the state wrongly changed reporting criteria, and the Ohio Supreme Court has agreed to hear ECOT’s appeal.

Meanwhile, ECOT is seeking to be designated as a dropout prevention and recovery school, which would get a more lenient state evaluation than traditional schools.

That development further fired up Democratic gubernatorial candidate and state Rep. Betty Sutton, who called ECOT a scam and a sham this week as she proposed a more restrictive process for designating charters as dropout schools.

Other Democrats running for governor have raised sharp criticisms, too. State Sen. Joe Schiavoni, of Boardman, is pushing a legislative proposal to boost oversight of e-schools, and former state lawmaker Connie Pillich vowed to shut down failing charters if she’s elected. Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley referred to the ECOT situation as a product of “crony capitalism.”

This summer, the Ohio Republican Party said it was returning $76,000 in campaign donations from ECOT founder William Lager and an associate from his school management company. A party spokesman told reporters the refund was in the party’s best interest but wouldn’t elaborate.

The GOP gubernatorial candidates — Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, Secretary of State Jon Husted, U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci and Attorney General Mike DeWine, who appointed a lawyer from outside his office to represent the Department of Education in the ECOT case — haven’t said much about ECOT while campaigning publicly.

Among the GOP’s statewide contenders, perhaps the most vocal on that has been state Auditor Dave Yost, who’s running for attorney general. He spoke at the school’s graduation ceremony two years ago but has taken a less friendly tone toward it recently. He took action to block ECOT from using taxpayer dollars for advertising and urged it to recoup money from its management company, software vendor, and sponsor for their portions of its overpayment.

The Democratic for attorney general candidate, federal prosecutor Steve Dettelbach, of Cleveland, has said politicians at the GOP-dominated Statehouse enabled ECOT’s “mess.”

Former congressman Zack Space also seized on the issue in his campaign to succeed Yost, arguing that ECOT remained in business despite its problems because affiliates contributed financially to politicians who failed to intervene.

Also in that race is former state Senate president and current Republican Rep. Keith Faber, who praises Yost’s efforts to recoup ECOT funding and says he’d continue that push for public-school accountability if elected as auditor.


Find Kantele Franko on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/kantele10 and her work at http://bit.ly/2qEaebN.