The Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram published an impressive investigation on a trend that we are seeing in Georgia: For-profit online k-12 schools “aiding” legislators in writing laws that create a demand and favorable climate for their product.
One of the changes pushed by the for-profit online sector: Statewide requirements that all students take at least one online course. We saw that effort here in Georgia. Senate Bill 289 initially mandated that all Georgia high school students complete at least one online course starting in 2014.
But as passed and signed by the governor, the law says districts have to make online courses available to their students and increase options for online learning.
The law states:
The State Board of Education shall establish rules and regulations to maximize the number
of students, beginning with students entering ninth grade in the 2014-2015 school year, who complete prior to graduation at least one course containing online learning.
In its investigation, the Portland newspapers traced the evolution of the state’s virtual school policies, beginning with the Maine education commissioner’s participation in a conference paid for by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education
The paper reports that Maine ed commissioner Stephen Bowen came back impressed with the presentations on virtual schools.
But what had Bowen especially enthusiastic was his meeting with Bush’s top education aide, Patricia Levesque, who runs the foundation but is paid through her private firm, which lobbies Florida officials on behalf of online education companies. Bowen was preparing an aggressive reform drive on initiatives intended to dramatically expand and deregulate online education in Maine, but he felt overwhelmed.
“I have no ‘political’ staff who I can work with to move this stuff through the process,” he emailed her from his office.
Levesque replied not to worry; her staff in Florida would be happy to suggest policies, write laws and gubernatorial decrees, and develop strategies to ensure they were implemented.“When you suggested there might be a way for us to get some policy help, it was all I could do not to jump for joy,” Bowen wrote Levesque from his office.
“Let us help,” she responded.
The Maine newspaper reviewed more than 1,000 pages of emails that showed Bowen relied on the foundation to shape Maine’s online policies and concluded that “large portions of Maine’s digital education agenda are being guided behind the scenes by out-of-state companies that stand to capitalize on the changes, especially the nation’s two largest online education providers.”
The newspaper wrote:
K12 Inc. of Herndon, Va., and Connections Education, the Baltimore-based subsidiary of education publishing giant Pearson, are both seeking to expand online offerings and to open full-time virtual charter schools in Maine, with taxpayers paying the tuition for the students who use the services.
At stake is the future of thousands of Maine schoolchildren who would enroll in the full-time virtual schools and, if the companies had their way, the future of tens of thousands more who would be legally required to take online courses at their public high schools in order to receive their diplomas.
The two companies have at times acted directly, spending tens of thousands of dollars lobbying lawmakers in Augusta and nurturing the creation of the supposedly independent boards for the proposed virtual schools they would operate and largely control.
The Portland newspaper probe also looked at the performance of students taking online courses:
In Pennsylvania, where some 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual schools at an average cost of $10,000 per student, pupils scored 13 percent worse in reading and 24 percent worse in math than students at ordinary public schools, according to a 2011 study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. The researchers broke out the data for separate student groups — those poor enough to qualify for free or reduced lunch, those still learning to speak English, grade repeaters, blacks and Hispanics — and compared them to their counterparts at ordinary charter schools. “In every subgroup with significant effects,” they reported, “cyber charter performance is lower than the brick-and-mortar performance.”
The Stanford study may have helped prompt The New York Times to conduct an investigation of K12 Inc.’s virtual charter schools later that year, which concluded that the company “tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards.”
At the K12-managed Agora Cyber Charter School in Pennsylvania — which reportedly generated $72 million in revenues — the Times found 60 percent of students were behind grade level in math, nearly 50 percent in reading and a third were not graduating on time: “Hundreds of children, from kindergartners to seniors, withdraw within months after they enroll.”
The company spent $681,000 lobbying in the state between 2007 and the end of last year.
Whenever posters here question online education, industry folks complain that they are resisting innovation and defending the status quo. But lobbyists writing laws that promote and protect the interests and profits of their industries over the well-being and welfare of taxpayers should be resisted.
The investigations by the Portland papers and The New York Times will be followed by similar exposés across the country. And the reason is simple: For-profit education, whether k-12 or college, has two goals that can end up at odds. One is to educate students and the other is to make money. When the latter lags, the former suffers.
Online learning certainly has a growing role in education, but that role can’t be defined by the industry. It has to serve the education needs of students rather than the profit margins of providers.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog