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 3)

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CRITICS REACT: National education leaders say democratic governance is being superseded by corporate control.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

On June 7, the charter school commissioners set aside both applications, expressing concern both about the proposed schools’ level of independence from the for-profit online education companies from which they would contract their services, and the all-volunteer commission’s competence to evaluate their proposals in the time available.

“By statute, you have to have a governing board that has an arm’s-length relationship with any organization they would hire to perform the virtual contract,” says the charter commission’s chair, Jana Lapoint. “Those contracts need to be scrutinized very carefully because unfortunately they don’t have that sort of relationship.”

For instance, in their application, Maine Virtual Academy delegates all day-to-day management and operations to two officials, both of whom are to be recruited and employed by K12, as will all teachers.

The school’s board plays little or no role in the hiring of these officials. “K12 itself is in the best position to make final hiring and supervisory decisions relative to the administrators,” the application reads.

The charter school commission’s decision to postpone evaluation of the virtual schools’ applications elicited a fiery June 11 letter from LePage, who suggested they reconsider or resign.

The commissioners stood by their decision, and both entities recently withdrew their applications, though they say they intend to reapply next year.

In the process, however, each provided a glimpse into who actually calls the shots.

Maine Connections Academy board member Volk was listed as the primary contact person on the school’s application. She responded to a request for comment only after first consulting with Barrie Drum, Connections Education’s senior director of state relations in Baltimore. “I just spoke with her and she said that they were not withdrawing the application, but had asked to have it taken down off the website,” Volk said, before referring follow-up questions to Drum and providing a cellphone number.

Drum answered and appeared flustered to be speaking to a journalist and said she would call back.

Thirty minutes later she called back and said: “The board has requested that the application be taken down now (from the commission’s public website) because it’s not an active application,” she said. “It’s not active, so why should it be up there?”

Asked if she was on the board or authorized to speak for them, she responded in the negative and tersely referred further queries back to the board.

On Aug. 7, Mills advised the Maine Sunday Telegram by email that “K12 has also decided to withdraw its pending application and then refile it later after the charter commission has had further training on virtual education.”

Asked if that should instead be a decision of K12’s local board, Mills wrote back: “I’m sorry. The board did, in fact, make that decision. We met specifically for that purpose. K12 agreed with it.”

In an interview a few days previously, Mills had been surprised to learn that rival Maine Connections Academy had withdrawn its bid, and said it was not something he and his board colleagues had considered for their application and didn’t see why it would be necessary.

Mills had also said that he wanted to be sure virtual schools were “brought here in a responsible way, a measured way, in a way that makes sure that a board member like me is able to track their performance and report back to the charter school commission.”

“If they weren’t performing well, I’d turn on them in a moment and everyone knows I will,” he added.

STATE LEADERS EMBRACE FOUNDATION’S DIRECTIVES

Digital education companies also have something less than an arm’s-length relationship with Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, the organization Commissioner Bowen has leaned on in developing administration policy.

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