September 5, 2012

Our View: State has outsourced policy on virtual schools

The LePage administration has given for-profit companies too much influence in digital learning.

A scathing investigation by Maine Sunday Telegram writer Colin Woodard should cause lawmakers to put the brakes on Maine's virtual-school and digital-learning programs and ask who these policies are really designed to help.

click image to enlarge

Celestial McBride, left, 14, and her brother Sevan, 12, work on an online lesson from the Florida Virtual School at their home in Mims, Fla., in 2011. A Maine Sunday Telegram investigation shows that companies that sell materials to online educators contribute to the election efforts of Gov. LePage and other candidates and have undue influence on state policy.

2011 File Photo/The Associated Press

The report revealed the incestuous relationship between out-of-state for-profit companies, the nonprofit think tanks they back, their lobbyists and Maine public officials. Documents show that Gov. LePage and his education commissioner, Stephen Bowen, have outsourced Maine's digital education policy development to those who stand to make a profit from it.

It comes as no surprise that LePage and Bowen are influenced by national groups or pay attention to what has been tried in other states. But what this investigation shows is that companies such as K12 Inc., which sells materials to online educators, contribute to the election efforts of LePage and other candidates and have undue influence on state policy.

The company also helps finance the Foundation for Education Excellence, a think tank founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. FEE's executive director and lobbyist, Patricia Levesque, advised Bowen, giving him boilerplate legislation that would permit the creation of virtual charter schools.

Those schools would have to buy services from K12 Inc. with taxpayer money that would otherwise go to traditional public schools.

The influence went even higher than Bowen. LePage submitted an FEE document almost unedited and called it an executive order. If a student had pulled a similar stunt, it would have been called cheating.

Some might say that the administration is right to consult experts, but what's going on here is something much more serious.

These transactions are robbing the public of its ability to oversee education.

The local school committee would have no influence in how locally raised tax money and state subsidy was spent in these virtual schools. Those questions would be governed by state law, which may turn out to have been written by a vendor, accountable only to its investors, which stands to collect millions from Maine taxpayers.

After inventing stories about special entrance exams for Maine college-bound students, and opining, without evidence, that the whole world looks down on Maine because of the alleged low quality of our schools, Gov. LePage does not have much credibility when it comes to education policy.

Now he should have even less.


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