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

(Continued from page 1)

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CRITICS REACT: National education leaders say democratic governance is being superseded by corporate control.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

Defenders of full-time virtual schools say the schools will diversify and enrich Maine’s educational landscape, providing additional options – and substantial new curricular resources – for parents and students who wish to use them. The big online education companies have developed a wide range of courses and products, which they can provide at a lower per-pupil cost than a conventional class.

“We took a cautious approach in Maine, and the winner here will be everybody: the company that provides a good product; the state; and most importantly the student,” says Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Livermore Falls, who sponsored the 2011 charter school law that made such schools possible.

“The number one reason parents chose this form of education is the ability to have a more personalized form of schooling that will better suit their student’s needs,” says Connections Education CEO Barbara Dreyer. “Maine has a lot of independent-minded people in it who will find an education that’s very flexible and personalized very attractive.”

Critics charge that the online education companies that wish to operate Maine’s virtual schools divert precious public education dollars into profits and dividends while providing education of dubious quality. (See sidebar).

“There’s this drumbeat at state legislatures to pass what I think is a scam to milk dollars out of public schools,” says Rep. Andy O’Brien, D-Lincolnville, sponsor of an unsuccessful amendment to last year’s charter school bill that would have closed the door to full-time virtual schools, which already exist in 27 states. “If you’re an investor these days with the economy going down, where are you going to invest? Oh, look, there’s a trillion dollars in public education funds waiting to be manipulated.”

“Speaking as an educator and someone concerned about the next generation of kids and their health and well-being, these things are disastrous,” says Gene Glass, professor emeritus at Arizona State University and a senior researcher at the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “But do they have a future? Yeah, they probably have a great future financially because they line up with the need of states to cut their costs and they are cheap.”

CRITIC SAYS COMPANIES 'CREATE MARKETS FOR THEMSELVES'

In many states, the companies have also advanced their interests through their memberships in the American Legislative Exchange Council. While ALEC claims to be a nonpartisan professional association for state legislators, critics say it is really a corporate-funded conduit allowing businesses to write legislation for compliant lawmakers. Virtually all of its funding comes from its corporate members – which include K12 Inc. and Pearson’s Connections Education – who have collective veto power over the text of its model bills, which cover everything from “right to work” labor laws to “stand your ground” gun laws. They also in effect pay the expenses of many legislative members to attend meetings.

ALEC’s membership lists and the model bills they provided to legislators were secret until last year, when they were obtained and published by a watchdog group, the Center for Media and Democracy.

The corporate chair of ALEC’s education committee was revealed to be Mickey Revenaugh, Connections Education’s senior vice president of state relations, and members included K12, the International Association for K12 Online Learning, and Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. (Connections Education withdrew its membership in May.)

Bowen was also an ALEC member in March 2011, the month he was confirmed as commissioner, according to a second set of ALEC documents leaked to Common Cause and posted on their website earlier this summer. Bowen – then a senior adviser to LePage and the head of education initiatives for the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center – served as a private sector member of ALEC’s education committee, where he worked alongside officials from K12, Connections and other interested companies evaluating and approving model bills – including one creating centralized state clearinghouses for the sale of online courses.

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