How Online Learning Companies Bought America's Schools
Since the conference, SPN’s state affiliates have taken a lead role in pushing virtual schools. Several of its state-based affiliates, like the Buckeye Institute in Ohio, set up websites claiming that unions—the only real opposition to ending collective bargaining and the expansion of charter school reforms—led to overpaid teachers and budget deficits. In Wisconsin, the MacIver Institute’s “news crew” laid the groundwork for Governor Walker’s assault on collective bargaining by creating news reports denouncing protesters and promoting the governor. In March, while busting the teachers unions in his state, Walker lifted the cap on virtual schools and removed the program’s income requirements.
State Representative Robin Vos, the Wisconsin state chair for ALEC, sponsored the bill codifying Walker’s radical expansion of online, for-profit schools. Vos’s bill not only lifts the cap but also makes new, for-profit virtual charters easier to establish. As the Center for Media and Democracy, a Madison-based liberal watchdog, notes, the bill closely resembles legislative templates put forward by ALEC.
Although SPN’s unique contribution to the debate has been clever web videos and online smear sites, the group’s affiliates have also continued the traditional approach of policy papers. In Washington State, the Freedom Foundation published “Online Learning 101: A Guide to Virtual Public Education in Washington”; Nebraska’s Platte Institute released “The Vital Need for Virtual Schools in Nebraska”; and the Sutherland Institute, a Utah-based SPN affiliate, equipped lawmakers with a guide called “Thinking Outside the Building: Online Education.” SPN think tanks in Maine, Maryland and other states have pressed virtual school reforms. Patrick visited SPN state groups and gave pep talks about how to sell the issue to lawmakers.
Meanwhile, ALEC has continued to slip laws written by education-tech lobbyists onto the books. In Tennessee, Republican State Representative Harry Brooks didn’t even bother changing the name of ALEC’s Virtual Public Schools Act before introducing it as his own legislation. Asked by the Knoxville News Sentinel’s Tom Humphrey where he got the idea for the bill, Brooks readily admitted that a K12 Inc. lobbyist helped him draft it. Governor Bill Haslam signed Brooks’s bill into law in May. The statute allows parents to apply nearly every dollar the state typically spends per pupil, almost $6,000 in most areas, to virtual charter schools, as long as they are authorized by the state.
SPN’s fall 2010 conference featured the man perhaps happiest with the explosion in virtual education: Jeb Bush. “I have a confession to make,” he said with grin. “I am a real policy geek, and this is like the epicenter of geekdom.” Bush shared his experiences initiating some of the nation’s first for-profit and virtual charter school reforms as the governor of Florida, acknowledging his policy ideas came from some in the room. (The local SPN affiliate in Tallahassee is the James Madison Institute.)
Bush: Man Behind the Virtual Curtain
Jeb Bush campaigned vigorously in 2010 to expand such reforms, with tremendous success. About a month after the election, he unveiled his road map for implementing a far-reaching ten-point agenda for virtual schools and online coursework. Former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise, a Democrat, has barnstormed the country to encourage lawmakers to adopt Bush’s plan, which calls for the permanent financing of education-technology reforms, among other changes. In one promotional video, Wise says it is “not only about the content” of the online courses but the “process” of students becoming acquainted with learning on the Internet.
The key pillar of Bush’s plan is to make sure virtual education isn’t just a new option for taxpayer money but a requirement. And several states, like Florida, have already adopted online course requirements. As Idaho Republicans faced a public referendum on their online course requirement rule last summer, Bush arrived in the state to show his support. “Implemented right, you’re going to see rising student achievement,” said Bush, praising Idaho Governor Butch Otter and school superintendent Tom Luna, who was elected with campaign donations from the online-education industry. Bush also claimed that making high school students take online classes would “put Idaho on the map” as a “digital revolution takes hold.” Bush was in Michigan in June to testify for Governor Rick Snyder’s suite of education reform ideas, which include uncapped expansion of virtual schools, and he was back in the state in July to continue to press for reforms.
In August, at ALEC’s annual conference in New Orleans, the education task force officially adopted Bush’s ten elements agenda. Mickey Revenaugh, the virtual school executive overseeing the committee, presided over the vote endorsing the measure. But when does Bush’s advocacy, typically reported in the press as the work of a former governor with education experience advising the new crop of Republicans, cross the threshold into corporate lobbying?
The nonprofit behind this digital push, Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, is funded by online learning companies: K12 Inc., Pearson (which recently bought Connections Education), Apex Learning (a for-profit online education company launched by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen), Microsoft and McGraw-Hill Education among others. The advisory board for Bush’s ten digital elements agenda reads like a Who’s Who of education-technology executives, reformers, bureaucrats and lobbyists, including Michael Stanton, senior vice president for corporate affairs at Blackboard; Karen Cator, director of technology for the Education Department; Jaime Casap, a Google executive in charge of business development for the company’s K-12 division; Shafeen Charania, who until recently served as marketing director of Microsoft’s education products department; and Bob Moore, a Dell executive in charge of “facilitating growth” of the computer company’s K-12 education practice.
Like other digital reform advocates, the Bush nonprofit is also supported by Microsoft founder Bill Gates’s foundation. The fact that a nonprofit that receives funding from both the Gates Foundation and Microsoft pressures states to adopt for-profit education reforms may raise red flags with some in the philanthropy community, as Microsoft, too, has moved into the education field. The company has tapped into the K-12 privatization expansion by supplying a range of products, from traditional Windows programs to servers and online coursework platforms. It also contracts with Florida Virtual School to provide cloud computer solutions. Similarly, Dell is seeking new opportunities in the K-12 market for its range of desktop products, while the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the charitable nonprofit founded by Dell’s CEO, promotes neoliberal education reforms.
Through Bush, education-technology companies have found a shortcut to encourage states to adopt e-learning reforms. Take his yearly National Summit on Education Reform, sponsored by the Foundation for Excellence in Education.
At the most recent summit, held in San Francisco in mid-October, a group of more than 200 state legislators and state education department officials huddled in a ballroom over education-technology strategy. Rich Crandall, a state senator from Arizona, said to hearty applause that he had developed a local think tank to support the virtual school reforms he helped usher into law. Toward the end of the discussion, Vander Ark, acting as an emcee, walked around the room acknowledging lawmakers who had recently passed pro–education tech laws this year. He handed the microphone to Kelli Stargel, a state representative from Florida, who stood up and boasted of creating “virtual charter schools, so we can have innovation in our state.”
Throughout the day, lawmakers mingled with education-technology lobbyists from leading firms, like Apex Learning and K12 Inc. Some of the distance learning reforms were taught in breakout sessions, like one called “Don’t Let a Financial Crisis Go to Waste,” an hourlong event that encouraged lawmakers to use virtual schools as a budget-cutting measure. Mandy Clark, a staffer with Bush’s foundation, walked around handing out business cards, offering to e-mail sample legislation to legislators.
The lobbying was evident to anyone there. But for some of those present, Bush didn’t go far enough. David Byer, a senior manager with Apple in charge of developing education business for the company, groaned and leaned over to another attendee sitting at the edge of the room after a lunch session. “You have this many people together, why can’t you say, ‘Here are the ten elements, here are some sample bills’?” said Byer to David Stevenson, who nodded in agreement. Stevenson is a vice president of News Corporation’s education subsidiary, Wireless Generation, an education-technology firm that specializes in assessment tools. It was just a year ago that News Corp. announced its intention to enter the for-profit K-12 education industry, which Rupert Murdoch called “a $500 billion sector in the US alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed.”