Chief Justice Suggests ECOT’s Claim for $80 million is “absurd”

It’s tough to imagine a worse day for a lawyer than one where a Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court suggests in oral argument that your argument appears “absurd.” But that’s what happened to ECOT’s lawyer today.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Conner, who received $3,450 in campaign contributions from ECOT founder Bill Lager, described ECOT’s claim that the school should be paid taxpayer money for educating a student, even if that student only logs on once a month and does no work,  this way: “How is that not absurd?”

Having the Chief Justice say that is bad enough. Coming from a beneficiary of ECOT’s political largess? That’s catastrophic.

But her point illuminates the exact problem with ECOT — a problem that’s occurred since the school’s inception.

ECOT has been collecting hundreds of millions of dollars since it opened in 2000 for kids they can’t prove actually engaged in educational activity. ECOT’s argument is that it should be paid as much for kids that did no work as those who they can document did 920 to 1000 hours of work. What matters is whether the kids had the opportunity to learn for at least 920 hours, not whether they actually learned for 920 hours, according to the school.

At issue is $80 million the Ohio Department of Education says the school owes taxpayers because that funding paid for kids the school couldn’t show actually engaged in any educational activity — and certainly not the 920 hour minimum required of all Ohio students. ECOT was forced to close last month because the school claims it can’t survive financially by making these payments.

The Department’s lawyer, Doug Cole, made a pretty common sense argument: You could claim expenses for years on your taxes, but if the IRS asks for receipts one year, you can’t say you’re shocked you need them now.

Also, as a reminder, the school last year received no student from a school district that performed worse overall on the state report card than ECOT. And in an astonishing 1 out of every 4 dollars sent to ECOT, the district that sent the kid to the school outperformed ECOT in every comparable report card measure.  And only 109 of about 3,000 ECOT graduates in 2010 have college degrees today — an absurdly low figure for any school, especially given ECOT’s size.

It is unclear how long the Supreme Court will take to make its decision. But if I’m Bill Lager — ECOT’s founder and chief financial benefactor — I’d be worried.