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 4)

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CRITICS REACT: National education leaders say democratic governance is being superseded by corporate control.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 foundation’s Digital Learning Now! initiative receives funding from Pearson, K12, textbook publishing giants Houghton Mifflin-Harcourt and McGraw-Hill, and tech companies such as Apple, Intel and Microsoft, and digital curriculum developers Apex Learning and IQ Innovations iQity. The initiative – whose 10-point strategy has been formally embraced by the LePage administration – focuses on removing legal barriers to public financing of virtual classes.

The “10 elements” include dozens of specific policy directives, including for states to:

eliminate restrictions on online student-to-teacher ratios, enrollments, class sizes, budgets, providers, or the number of credits a student can earn;

not regulate “seat time” in classes, or require that online providers, their teachers, or their governing board members be located in the state;

avoid assessment of “inputs such as teacher certification, programmatic budgets and textbook reviews” and focus instead on “student learning data” from digital testing;

fund digital learning “through the public per-pupil funding formula;”

provide all students with access to “any and all” approved online providers;

require students to take online courses in order to graduate;

pay for the online classes of all students, including homeschoolers and those in private schools;

ensure by law that full-time virtual schools are available for all students;

deprive school districts of “the ability to deny access to approved virtual schools and individual online courses” even as they pay for their students to use them out of their per-pupil budget allocation.

“One of the striking things about these reforms is the extent to which they remove control of the schools from democratic governance and turn them over to corporate decision-making and appointed bodies,” says Alex Molnar, research professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s National Education Policy Center. “Education policy is now being made to some degree by people who have a financial stake in what they are making policy about.”

Levesque promotes these initiatives as the executive director of Bush’s foundation, but she and her deputy, Deirdre Finn, receive no salary, the organization’s tax returns show. Instead, the foundation pays fees – $156,848 in 2010 – to Meridian Strategies LLC, a consulting firm jointly owned by the two women, with the stipulation that the payment be divided between them. The foundation’s Florida subsidiary paid Meridian an additional $156,848 in “consulting and management” fees. Meridian earns additional fees lobbying in Florida for digital education concerns including iQity, The College Board, software provider Blackboard Connect, and Hayes Computer Systems.

It was to these two individuals that Bowen has repeatedly turned for help in developing digital and other education policies for Maine, according to emails obtained through a public records request by In the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.,-based group that scrutinizes efforts to privatize public services. The group – which made similar requests in other states – forwarded nearly 1,100 pages of department emails to The Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram.

JEB BUSH SEES ‘POTENTIAL FOR (MAINE) TO BE A MODEL’

At Bowen’s request, Levesque and her staff forwarded drafts of legislation on a wide range of reforms, including language requiring that all students take at least one Advanced Placement class online in order to graduate. When Bowen was unable to get the Legislature’s education committee “where we needed them to be” on a bill that would require school districts to pay for any online class any of their students chose to enroll in elsewhere in the state, he asked for further help.

Legislators had instead encouraged the administration to create a study commission to examine digital learning issues. “We have a chance to shape the study commission a bit,” Bowen wrote to the foundation Jan. 10. “Specifically, I think we want to have a strategic plan developed that lays out a road map for getting us meeting the 10 (Digital Learning Now!) standards. Is there still some support available for something like this?”

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