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 5)

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CRITICS REACT: National education leaders say democratic governance is being superseded by corporate control.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

Finn responded affirmatively to Bowen’s plea for help, and they scheduled a telephone call. Bowen’s emails to others show he was seeking funding from conservative foundations to “bring in a project manager of some kind to help shepherd the development of the plan.” He also agreed to coordinate with his old employer, the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, to further the plan.

Bowen wrote Finn a few days later that he thought he should have LePage issue an executive order to implement the “10 elements,” but needed help with the language. The order would be issued on Feb. 1 to coincide with what the foundation had proclaimed to be the “first ever National Digital Learning Day.”

“That is a great plan,” Finn responded. “We can definitely help develop an executive order. I believe Governor LePage and Maine will be the first to issue an executive order on the 10 elements, which is spectacular.”

When LePage read out his executive order at a news conference Feb. 1, most of his words were those written by the foundation, including the assertion that Maine “will benefit from the development of a strategic plan to adopt and implement the policies defined by the 10 elements.” The changes the administration did make were to replace references to its own education plan with the “10 elements,” including a specific order to Bowen’s department to “develop policy recommendations consistent with and organized around the 10 elements.”

As Bowen and LePage pushed the “10 elements” agenda, foundation officials informed him that Jeb Bush had “singled out Maine as a state he believes can be at the forefront of digital education reform.”

In February, Bowen was invited to Bush’s “Governor’s Symposium” in April in North Carolina to “share Maine’s approach to the system changes that must occur” in digital learning. “We are excited about the work you and Governor LePage are doing, and the potential for your state to be a model,” a foundation official wrote him.

“Happy to be of service to Governor Bush,” Bowen wrote back a few minutes later. “Looking forward to working with you on this.”

Reached for comment, Bowen distanced himself from the “10 elements,” saying his department looked at them as “a road map to bounce our state policy objectives off of” rather than objectives they had committed to.

“When you are developing public policy, you look at what states are doing and you look at national policy and you try to put it all together,” he said. “I think we share the aims of Digital Learning Now! in that we want to broaden access to digital learning, and that where somebody lives shouldn’t determine if they have access. Some of what we try to move forward will be consistent with DLN, some of it won’t.”

Bush, the commissioner said, was likely excited about Maine because of former Gov. Angus King’s pioneering laptop program, which has equipped all seventh- and eighth-graders, about half of high school students, and all middle and secondary schoolteachers with Apple computers. “This is one piece that no other state has,” he noted.

Bowen rejected the notion that online education companies were having undue influence on the department’s policies, which in any case would be scrutinized through the democratic process, needing to pass legislative committees and floor votes.

“Lots and lots of people are involved in public policy, and at the end of the day, the ideas are what matters, and I have to have good ideas when I am standing downstairs at the (State House’s) education committee,” Bowen said. “Our job as policymakers is to take ideas from wherever they come from and throw them against the wall and see what they can do.”

“If I’m being accused of asking around and getting ideas from some of the people who are working on this nationally,” he said, “then I’m guilty.”

Staff Writer Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

cwoodard@mainetoday.com

CLARIFICATION : This story was updated Sept. 5 to clarify that K12 Inc. contributed $19,000 to the Republican Governors Association's Maine PAC, which made independent expenditures to help Gov. LePage win election.  

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