How Online Learning Companies Bought America's Schools
Like many “education entrepreneurs,” Moe remains a player in the education reform movement, pushing policies that have the potential to benefit his clients. In addition to advising prominent politicians like Senator John McCain, Moe is a board member of the Center for Education Reform, a pro-privatization think tank that issues policy papers and ads to influence the debate. Earlier this year, the group dropped $70,000 on an ad campaign in Pennsylvania comparing those who oppose a new measure to expand vouchers to segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace, who blocked African-American children from entering white schools.
Moe isn’t the only member of the Center for Education Reform with a profound conflict of interest. CER president Jeanne Allen doubles as the head of TAC Public Affairs, a government relations firm that has represented several top education for-profits. Allen, whose clients have included Kaplan Education and Charter Schools USA, served as transition adviser to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett on education reform.
Corbett, a Republican who rode the Tea Party election wave in 2010, supports a major voucher expansion that is working its way through the state legislature. The expansion would be a windfall for companies like K12 Inc., which currently operates one Pennsylvania school under the limited charter law on the books. According to disclosures reported in Business Week, Pennsylvania’s Agora Cyber Charter School—K12 Inc.’s online school, which allows students to take all their courses at home using a computer—generated $31.6 million for K12 Inc. in the past academic year.
Thirteen other states have enacted laws to expand or initiate so-called school choice programs this year. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels has pushed the hardest, enacting a law that removes the cap on the number of charter schools in his state, authorizes all universities to register charters and expands an existing voucher program in the state for students to attend private and charter schools (in some cases managed by for-profit companies). Critics note that Daniels’s law allows public money to flow to religious institutions as well. Twenty-seven other states, in addition to Pennsylvania, have voucher expansion laws pending. And states like Florida are embracing tech-friendly education reform to require that students take online courses to graduate. In Idaho this November, the state board of education approved a controversial plan to require at least two online courses for graduation.
“We think that’s so important because every student, regardless of what they do after high school, they’ll be learning online,” said Tom Vander Ark, a prominent online education advocate, on a recently distributed video urging the adoption of online course requirements. Vander Ark, a former executive director of education at the influential Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, now lobbies all over the country for the online course requirement. Like Moe, he keeps one foot in the philanthropic world and another in business. He sits on the board of advisors of Democrats for Education Reform and is partner to an education-tech venture capital company, Learn Capital. Learn Capital counts AdvancePath Academics, which offers online coursework for students at risk of dropping out, as part of its investment portfolio. When Vander Ark touts online course requirements, it is difficult to discern whether he is selling a product that could benefit his investments or genuinely believes in the virtue of the idea.
To be sure, some online programs have potential and are necessary in areas where traditional resources aren’t available. For instance, online AP classes serve rural communities without access to qualified teachers, and there are promising efforts to create programs that adapt to the needs of students with special learning requirements. But by and large, there is no evidence that these technological innovations merit the public resources flowing their way. Indeed, many such programs appear to be failing the students they serve.
A recent study of virtual schools in Pennsylvania conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University revealed that students in online schools performed significantly worse than their traditional counterparts. Another study, from the University of Colorado in December 2010, found that only 30 percent of virtual schools run by for-profit organizations met the minimum progress standards outlined by No Child Left Behind, compared with 54.9 percent of brick-and-mortar schools. For White Hat Management, the politically connected Ohio for-profit operating both traditional and virtual charter schools, the success rate under NCLB was a mere 2 percent, while for schools run by K12 Inc., it was 25 percent. A major review by the Education Department found that policy reforms embracing online courses “lack scientific evidence” of their effectiveness.
“Why are our legislators rushing to jump off the cliff of cyber charter schools when the best available evidence produced by independent analysts show that such schools will be unsuccessful?” asked Ed Fuller, an education researcher at Pennsylvania State University, on his blog.
The frenzy to privatize America’s K-12 education system, under the banner of high-tech progress and cost-saving efficiency, speaks to the stunning success of a public relations and lobbying campaign by industry, particularly tech companies. Because of their campaign spending, education-tech interests are major players in elections. In 2010, K12 Inc. spent lavishly in key races across the country, including a last-minute donation of $25,000 to Idahoans for Choice in Education, a political action committee supporting Tom Luna, a self-styled Tea Party school superintendent running for re-election. Since 2004, K12 Inc. alone has spent nearly $500,000 in state-level direct campaign contributions, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. David Brennan, Chairman of White Hat Management, became the second-biggest Ohio GOP donor, with more than $4.2 million in contributions in the past decade.
The Alliance for School Choice, a national education reform group, set up PACs in several states to elect state lawmakers. According to Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, American Federation for Children spent $500,000 in media in the lead-up to Wisconsin’s recall elections. AFC shares leaders, donors, and a street address with ASC. Bill Oberndorf, one of the main donors to the group, had been associated with Voyager Learning, an online education company, for years. A few months ago, Cambium Learning, the parent company of Voyager, paid Oberndorf’s investment firm $4.9 million to buy back Oberndorf’s stock. Cambium currently offers a fleet of supplemental education tools for school districts. With the recent acquisition of Class.com, a smaller online learning business, the company announced its entry into the virtual charter school and online course market.
Allies of the Right
Lobbyists for virtual school companies have also embedded themselves in the conservative infrastructure. The International Association for Online Learning (iNACOL), the trade association for EdisonLearning, Connections Academy, K12 Inc., American Virtual Academy, Apex Learning and other leading virtual education companies, is a case in point. A former Bush appointee at the Education Department, iNACOL president Susan Patrick traverses right-leaning think tanks spreading the gospel of virtual schools. In the past year, she has addressed the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, a group dedicated to setting up laissez-faire nonprofits all over the world, as well as the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
Two pivotal conservative organizations have helped Patrick in her campaigns for virtual schools: the American Legislative Exchange Council and the State Policy Network. SPN nurtures and establishes state-based policy and communication nonprofits with a right-wing bent. ALEC, the thirty-eight-year-old conservative nonprofit, similarly coordinates a fifty-state strategy for right-wing policy. Special task forces composed of corporate lobbyists and state lawmakers write “template” legislation [see John Nichols, “ALEC Exposed,” August 1/8]. Since 2005, ALEC has offered a template law called “The Virtual Public Schools Act” to introduce online education. Mickey Revenaugh, an executive at virtual-school powerhouse Connections Learning, co-chairs the education policy–writing department of ALEC.
At SPN’s annual conference in Cleveland last year, held two months before the midterm elections, the think tank network adopted a new push for education reform, specifically embracing online technology and expanding vouchers. Patrick opened the event and led a session about virtual schools with Anthony Kim, president of the virtual-school business Education Elements.
SPN has faced accusations before that it is little more than a coin-operated front for corporations. For instance, SPN and its affiliates receive money from polluters, including infamous petrochemical giant Koch Industries, allegedly in exchange for aggressive promotion of climate denial theories. But SPN’s conference had less to do with policy than with tactics. Kyle Olson, a Republican operative infamous in Michigan and other states for his confrontational attacks on unionized teachers, gave a presentation on labor reform in K-12 education. Stanford Swim, heir to a Utah-based investment fortune and head of a traditional-values foundation, ran a workshop at the conference on creating viral videos to advance the cause. He said policy papers wouldn’t work. Tell your scholars, “Sorry, this isn’t a white paper,” Swim advised. “You gotta go there,” he continued, “and it’s because that’s where the audience is.” “If it’s vulgar, so what?” he added.