Friday, March 7, 2014
A group of digital-education experts is recommending that Maine create an online directory to help school districts and teachers find, choose and write reviews of digital learning resources.
In this May 1, 2013 file photo, Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen unveils the state's new A-F grading system surrounded by students at the Maine State Library. A push for virtual schools championed by Gov. Paul LePage and Jeb Bush appears to be fading.
Staff Photo by Joe Phelan
But the 17-member group's report and "digital learning strategy" is most notable for what it doesn't recommend: the sweeping policy changes advocated by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, which seek to remove a range of state restrictions and limitations on how digital learning products are accessed, supervised and funded.
The six-page report, overseen and composed by Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, suggests that Gov. Paul LePage's administration has slowed its effort to implement the controversial provisions of the Bush foundation's Digital Learning Now! initiative.
The report, including a detailed strategy for digital education, was supposed to have been turned in to LePage and the Legislature by Jan. 4, but wasn't filed until Feb. 22. It remained under wraps until the Portland Press Herald obtained it through a public records request.
The administration originally intended to introduce the strategy with a bang, at a conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by Bush in November. Instead, an unfinished plan was quietly submitted in Augusta, where key legislators aren't even aware of its existence.
Bowen said Wednesday that the report is "a work in progress" and he intends to reconvene the study group after the legislative session ends this summer.
"Plans change. That is the nature of this work," he said. "We're taking our time and continuing to work on a number of fronts."
The report makes no explicit reference to the Digital Learning Now! standards, and instead calls for "a curated digital learning directory" to help educators find, review and compare courses, professional development opportunities and other digital learning resources.
One virtue of that approach is its low cost; the report notes that expanding access to digital learning resources "will almost certainly have to be done within existing resources."
"We were very careful not to rubber-stamp any kind of program or specific approach," said Chris Toy, an education consultant in Bath who served on the group. "Looking at the individuals involved, that would not have been possible. Nobody is a wallflower."
The report contains no references to full-time virtual schools -- which LePage has championed -- and the proposed online directory would not handle them.
"My vision was looking at how we educators in Maine can be out there to lead, direct and improve on digital learning opportunities," said Michael Richards, president of the Association of Computer Technology Educators of Maine, "and not focus on virtual schools where accountability, content and instruction may suffer."
The focus on digital learning has increased since 2011, when the Legislature approved the creation of public charter schools, including full-time virtual schools, whose students get most or all of their education at home, via computer.
The nation's two largest online-education companies -- K12 Inc. and Connections Learning -- have been seeking to manage virtual charter schools in Maine, but have been rebuffed by the Maine Charter School Commission.
Virtual charter schools -- which are funded by taxpayers -- have a poor record nationally. In other states, K12 Inc. has faced investigations and the revocation of charters for some of its schools.
In party-line votes Monday, the Legislature's Education Committee recommended passage of bills that would impose a moratorium on virtual charter schools and effectively ban for-profit charter schools.
If passed by the Legislature, both bills are expected to face the governor's vetoes, which they would have difficulty overcoming.
Maine's Digital Learning Advisory Group was formed in February 2012 by separate acts of the governor and the Legislature, which at the time was controlled by Republicans.
LePage's executive order of Feb. 1, 2012, directed the Education Department to develop a strategic plan for digital learning "consistent with and organized around the 10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning" promoted nationwide by Bush's foundation.
An investigation by the Maine Sunday Telegram, published Sept. 2, revealed that the executive order had been ghostwritten by staffers at Bush's foundation, which receives funding from online education companies.
The "10 elements" include dozens of specific policy directives calling for states to:
n Eliminate restrictions on online student-to-teacher ratios, enrollments, class sizes, budgets, providers and the number of credits a student can earn.
n Avoid regulating "seat time" in classes, or requiring that online providers, their teachers or their governing board members be located in the state.
n Pay for the online classes of all students, including home-schoolers and those in private schools.
LePage chose to issue his order on Feb. 1 because the foundation had designated it the first "national digital learning day." Staff members at Bush's foundation were thrilled with the order.
In an email to Bowen, one said it made Maine "the first to issue an executive order on the 10 elements, which is spectacular."
While LePage's order directed the Education Department to create a stakeholder group and "develop a strategic plan" for digital learning, legislators passed a law three weeks later that further defined the group and its membership. Seven seats were reserved for specific organizations, including those representing principals, school boards, unionized teachers, superintendents and parent-teacher organizations. The other 10 experts were appointed by Bowen.
At the outset, in March 2012, Bowen expected that the foundation would play a major behind-the-scenes role. In a memo to foundation Deputy Director Deirdre Finn, Bowen wrote that the "next steps" would be for the foundation to write grants to pay for the study group's work and for a "contract with a company or individual to manage the project and write the plan."
He intended to release the plan at Bush's National Summit on Education Reform on Nov. 27-28 in Washington, D.C.
In an email response to Bowen, Finn expressed excitement at the prospect "for Maine to lead the nation on digital learning."
Emails acquired by the Press Herald reveal that, throughout the spring and summer of last year, Bowen remained optimistic that the study group would endorse the foundation's policy agenda. He conferred with the foundation regularly, asking it to survey how well Maine's policies "stacked up to the DLN essential elements" and to "get someone up here" to answer questions for the group.
As late as August, the foundation's personnel were offering to "map out an agenda for you."
Bowen was bullish. "We need to make some big moves here, or at least aim for the fences on digital learning," he wrote to staff regarding the digital study group.
The effort apparently stalled after the Telegram's report on Sept. 2 revealed the foundation's involvement in digital policymaking and its entanglements with online education companies.
The day the story was published, Bowen wrote to the study group members, denying that he was "part of a vast right-wing conspiracy to privatize Maine's schools" or that the "now notorious" 10 elements were "a huge conspiracy driven by profit motives."
Later that month, he exchanged emails with a consultant, Jay Collier, in which they narrowed the study group's focus to four issues: quality control, training teachers in digital learning skills, equity of access across the state, and funding.
Bowen identified quality control as "issue number one" because of "all the press recently" and suggested that paying for digital learning might require a "state-level approach" similar to Maine's laptop program for seventh- and eighth-graders.
Study group members Richards and Toy said the group was presented with Digital Learning Now's "10 elements" in summary form but not with the foundation's more contentious policy recommendations.
"It was presented to us, but as information, not as a template," said Toy. He said Bowen and his staff never tried to pressure the group to adhere to the "elements," many of which focus on removing limits and regulations on online course offerings and how taxpayers pay for them.
Funding from Bush's foundation apparently never materialized, and the group met in person only twice. Bowen wrote the rough draft of the study group's report, but missed the statutory deadline of Jan. 4 to present it to lawmakers and the governor by nearly two months.
"It is the initial thinking of the group and it laid out a basic direction and some next steps," Bowen said in an email Tuesday night to the Press Herald.
He said the delays were due in part to a desire to see how things played out in the awarding of a new contract for the state's school laptop program. "We are currently in the process of developing a more detailed plan with timelines and deliverables," he said.
The preliminary report has languished. Neither LePage nor Bowen has publicized its completion, and lawmakers on the Education Committee learned of its existence from a reporter this week, even though they have copies in their files.
"I don't know the report or what it says, so I can't comment on it," said Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, the committee's House chair.
The governor's spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, referred requests for comment to Bowen.
On Tuesday, Richards and Toy were unsure whether the group had been disbanded, and each said the work was unfinished.
Richards wasn't aware that a report had been submitted to the Legislature on the group's behalf and asked a reporter if he could get a copy.
"I don't consider this the final report," he said after reviewing it, because there is "more work to be done."
Bowen agreed and said the report is not the sort of "strategic plan" envisioned in LePage's executive order. He said that he plans to reconvene the working group to lay out such a plan, and that the Digital Learning Now! policies are still being considered.
"We still plan to look at the DLN pieces and see where we are relative to those," he said.
"So what you have is a work in progress," the commissioner said. "There is more work to come, and quite a bit (of) it."
Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at: