July 3, 2013

Special Report: The profit motive behind virtual schools in Maine

Documents expose the flow of money and influence from corporations that stand to profit from state leaders' efforts to expand and deregulate digital education.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

This story originally was published on Sept. 2, 2012.

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• KEY FINDINGS

PULLING THE STRINGS: Maine's digital education agenda is being guided behind the scenes by out-of-state companies that stand to profit on the changes.

FLORIDA CONNECTION: The LePage administration has relied heavily on former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, a conservative think tank, in writing policies to create taxpayer-funded virtual schools in Maine.

FOLLOW THE MONEY: This foundation and its top officials receive funding from online education companies, which will profit if the initiatives go forward.

REMOTE CONTROL: The foundation wrote much of the language in Gov. Paul LePage's Feb. 1 executive order on digital learning, which embraces foundation policies.

BACKSTAGE MEETINGS: The secretive American Legislative Exchange Council -- a corporate-backed political group for state legislators -- developed digital learning legislation that was introduced by Maine lawmakers. Stephen Bowen (pictured) was a private-sector member until he was appointed education commissioner in Maine.

FAILING GRADES: Virtual schools have no classrooms, little or no in-person teaching and a poor track record compared to public schools. (Sidebar, A5)

CRITICS REACT: National education leaders say democratic governance is being superseded by corporate control.

• BACKGROUND DOCUMENTS

Comparison of Gov. LePage's executive order on digital learning and the
draft order provided by the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Digital Learning Now! agenda (adopted by LePage administration)

American Legislative Exchange documents leaked to Common Cause showing Stephen Bowen's membership and attendance at ALEC meetings.

Emails between Stephen Bowen and Patricia Levesque, executive director of Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Patricia Levesque's compensation (from Foundation for Excellence in Education's 2010 IRS filing)

• ADDITIONAL READING

New York Times Dec 2011 investigation of K12 Inc.

Stephen Bowen was excited and relieved.

Maine’s education commissioner had just returned to his Augusta office last October after a three-day trip to San Francisco where he attended a summit of conservative education reformers convened by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, which had paid for the trip.

He’d heard presentations on the merits of full-time virtual public schools – ones without classrooms, playgrounds or in-person teachers – and watched as Bush unveiled the “first ever” report card praising the states that had given online schools the widest leeway.

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.

So was a partnership formed between Maine’s top education official and a foundation entangled with the very companies that stand to make millions of dollars from the policies it advocates.

In the months that followed, according to more than 1,000 pages of emails obtained by a public records request, the commissioner would rely on the foundation to provide him with key portions of his education agenda. These included draft laws, the content of the administration’s digital education strategy and the text of Gov. Paul LePage’s Feb. 1 executive order on digital education.

A Maine Sunday Telegram investigation found 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.

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.


Click to enlarge

More often they have worked through intermediaries. K12 Inc. donated $19,000 to a political action committee that supported LePage's candidacy in 2010. K12 and Connections Education provided support to Jeb Bush’s foundation and to a controversial corporate-funded organization for state legislators, the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. Both K12 and Connections Education built relationships with Maine lawmakers and officials who introduced laws and policies beneficial to the companies’ bottom lines.

DIVERSIFYING THE LANDSCAPE, OR MILKING PUBLIC EDUCATION?

(Continued on page 2)

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