May 10, 2013

Maine Voices: To embrace virtual schools would be to shortchange Maine students

Instead, Maine should boost funding for the 'bricks and mortar' system that responds to the public.

By Sheryl Lee

PORTLAND - Twenty-four dollars and 40 cents a share. That was the closing price of K12 Inc. on May 2 as stated by the New York Stock Exchange.

Why is this number important? It indicates to Maine citizens that our trip into for-profit education is one that has the potential of being fraught with corruption.

Any for-profit organization has one goal: Make investors happy. How do they do that? It isn't by seeing that every student has a shot at a good education. It isn't by following state of Maine standards for public schools. It is by providing the cheapest education possible, make single-sourced required materials and still making a profit.

To be noted as well, the Board of Directors of K12 Inc. has only two members with a background in education (and not even K-12 teaching). One of them is Dr. Mary Futrell, who was dean of the Graduate School of Education at George Washington University. The other is Dr. Craig Barrett, who has a beneficent background in nonprofit education.

The other members of the K12 Inc. board have backgrounds in mergers and acquisitions and in entrepreneurship and have held financial positions at other for-profit learning companies. Where are the curriculum coordinators and those with proven hands-on techniques?

This walk/run into virtual education was started by Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education. This organization is allied with the Koch brothers' American Legislative Exchange Council.

ALEC goes into states that have policies and laws contrary to its ultra-conservative ideologies and presents a "template" of bills that are in line with the interests of private industry. The organization then writes or rewrites legislation to fit private industry's needs.

Our Department of Education head, Stephen Bowen, has fallen hook, line and sinker. Mr. Bowen contacted Patricia Levesque, chief executive officer of FEE, to help get our state's program off the ground. Until March 4, Levesque was paid to lobby Florida officials in favor of online education companies at the same time that she ran a nonprofit organization that reportedly receives funding from online education companies.

Why take this trek into the unknown when we don't know the long-term results of the efforts? An initial report from the National Education Policy Center showed that cyberschool students are falling behind. It could cost us millions of dollars in remediation if these results tend to be a trend.

K12 Inc. -- one of the companies that has lobbied in Maine, given Gov. LePage money from its political action committee for his election coffers and put on a sales pitch in the guise of an education forum -- is now under investigation by the state of Florida. The charge? Not using certified teachers.

In addition, the state is investigating allegations that teachers with degrees in certain areas have been asked to sign off on students who needed credits that only those teachers can give. That wouldn't be a problem except that the teachers had neither heard of nor seen these students before.

Having taught in the past, I know how important state standards are. Under contracts with K12 Inc., there are few state standards that must be followed. The only way to know how well the students do is by their test scores. At that point, it is too late. (K12 publishes all the texts, software and materials for its virtual schools, and the schools are required to purchase them.)

The Massachusetts Virtual Academy, the state's first and only virtual school, will be closing this month after only three years, in part because of very poor student test scores -- the second lowest in the state in math and English as measured by student progress. In addition, the school had in excess of a 25 percent dropout rate.

An idea that I find quite attractive is putting the money into public education, where taxpayer dollars should go. Why are we throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water? We have a very sound local school system in place now.

In the field, it is called "bricks and mortar." In reality, it is the local place where people can participate in decision making. They can trust that educational experts in curriculum have input, advice and explanations about what their children learn.

If Maine finds that a school doesn't muster up to expectation, taxpayers should not demand a voucher system that takes money out of the public system but should call on state to spend money on the areas in the public system that need attention. Keep our money in the state of Maine where it belongs.

Sheryl Lee of Portland is a retired teacher and a board member of the Maine People's Alliance.

Correction: Foundation for Excellence in Education CEO Patricia Levesque's professional affiliation is corrected above. The original misstatement appeared because of a guest columnist's error.

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