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 2)

Related headlines

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CRITICS REACT: National education leaders say democratic governance is being superseded by corporate control.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

The leaked documents also showed that ALEC-sponsored digital education bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country in recent years.

“This is the ideal form of crony capitalism,” says Glass from the National Education Policy Center, which receives some of its funding from a teachers union, the National Education Association. “These are free market entrepreneurial companies manipulating the law to create markets for themselves.”

Here in Maine, several ALEC model bills that would benefit online education companies were introduced by the current Legislature. They included several measures that sought to use public funds to pay private school tuition, a law that allows public schools to act like charter schools, and parts of the charter school bill sponsored by Sen. Mason, who said ALEC was among the many interested parties he consulted while creating it.

“There were interested parties who wanted to make sure their interests were being represented, and we listened to all of them,” Mason says. “To say one party was driving the policy would not be correct.”

K12 was especially engaged in lobbying on the charter school bill and other legislation connected with digital learning. K12 has paid $33,074 to Augusta lobbyists since 2009, and contributed $19,000 to LePage’s election effort through the RGA Maine PAC. Connections paid Maine lobbyists $3,950 last year, all of it in connection with the charter bill, which allowed virtual schools but required that they be governed by local nonprofit organizations.

HOW TWO VIRTUAL SCHOOL APPLICATIONS CAME TO BE

Late last year, K12 Inc. contacted several influential individuals in Maine, suggesting they form a board, apply for a charter, and hire the Virginia company to provide the services.

“They did approach us and before we made a provisional decision to go along with them we went out to look at other companies,” says Maine Turnpike Authority director Peter Mills, who serves as secretary of the eight-member board of the proposed Maine Virtual Academy, one of two taxpayer-financed virtual schools proposed in Maine. “K12 is pretty impressive so we stuck with them.”

“They have enormous capacity and their materials and methods have been extremely well thought out,” adds Mills, on being asked about studies that question the company’s educational performance. “Whether they succeed or fail everywhere is another question; it depends on how strong the local board is.”

Connections Education helped set up a rival bid to create the Maine Connections Academy. Their board consists of Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, sponsor of several ALEC-drafted education bills this past term; state Republican Party vice chair Ruth Summers, wife of Secretary of State and U.S. Senate candidate Charlie Summers; Pioneer Telephone founder Peter Bouchard; and former state Sen. Carol Weston, whom ALEC named 2008 State Legislator of the Year and who now heads the Maine chapter of Americans for Prosperity, an organization founded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, who are also major donors to ALEC.

(Dreyer, Connections Education’s CEO, said she didn’t know the particulars of what happened in Maine, but that typically the company is contacted by enthusiastic people in the state “who have already done their research” and want to work with the company. “It’s not a case where we go in, identify a state, and then call up our friends and buddies and say, ‘Do you want to be on the board?’ ” she said.)

Earlier this year, both entities applied to the new independent state charter school commission for permission to start full-time virtual schools in Maine. According to its application, K12’s school was to grow to 1,000 students, and expected to receive $6,287 to $6,735 for each one from the state treasury, depending on grade level. Connections’ school would have 3,000 students.

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