How Online Learning Companies Bought America's Schools
As attendees stood up to leave the hall, the phalanx of lobbyists surrounding the room converged, buttonholing legislators and school officials. On a floor above the main hall, an expo center had been set up, with companies like McGraw-Hill, Connections Academy, K12 Inc., proud sponsors of the event, providing information on how to work with politicians to make education technology a reality.
Patricia Levesque, a Bush staffer speaking at the summit and the former governor’s right hand when it comes to education reform, does not draw a direct salary from Bush’s nonprofit despite the fact that she is listed as its executive director, and tax disclosures show that she spends about fifty hours a week at the organization. Instead, her lobbying firm, Meridian Strategies, supplies her income. The Foundation for Florida’s Future, another Bush nonprofit, contracts with Meridian, as do online technology companies like IQ-ity Innovation, which paid her up to $20,000 for lobbying services at the beginning of this year. The unorthodox arrangement allows donors to Bush’s group to avoid registering actual lobbyists while using operatives like Levesque to influence legislators and governors on education technology.
Levesque’s contract with IQ-ity raises questions about Bush’s foundation work. As Mother Jones recently reported, the founder of IQ-ity, William Lager, also founded an education company with a poor track record. Lager’s other education firm, Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, is the largest provider of virtual schools in Ohio. ECOT schools have consistently underperformed; though the company serves more than 10,000 children, its graduation rate has never broken 40 percent. The company was fined for billing the state to serve more than 2,000 students in one month, when only seven children logged on during the same time period. Nevertheless, after Levesque spent at least two years as a registered lobbyist for Lager’s firm, Bush traveled to Ohio to give the commencement speech for ECOT. “ECOT proves a glimpse into what’s possible,” Bush said with pride, “by harnessing the power of technology.”
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Levesque is no ordinary lobbyist. She is credited with encouraging the type of bare-knuckle politics now common in the wider education-reform movement. In an audio file obtained by The Nation, she and infamous anti-union consultant Richard Berman outlined a strategy in October 2010 for sweeping the nation with education reforms. The two spoke at the Philanthropy Roundtable, a get-together of major right-wing foundations. Lori Fey, a representative of the Michael Dell Foundation, moderated the panel discussion.
Rather than “intellectualize ourselves into the [education reform] debate…is there a way that we can get into it at an emotional level?” Berman asked. “Emotions will stay with people longer than concepts.” He then answered his own question: “We need to hit on fear and anger. Because fear and anger stays with people longer. And how you get the fear and anger is by reframing the problem.” Berman’s glossy ads, which have run in Washington, DC, and New Jersey, portray teachers unions as schoolyard bullies. One spot even seems to compare teachers to child abusers. Although Berman does not reveal his donors, he made clear in his talk that the foundations in the room were supporting his campaign.
Levesque ended the strategy discussion with a larger strategic question. She pointed to the example of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donating $100 million to Newark schools. She then asked the crowd to imagine instead raising $100 million for political races where we “could sway a couple of seats to have more education reform.” “Just shifting a little bit of your focus,” she added, noting that new politicians could have a greater impact.
Levesque’s ask has become reality. According to author Steven Brill, ex–DC school chancellor Michelle Rhee’s new group, StudentsFirst, raised $100 million within a few months of Levesque’s remarks. Rhee’s donors include Rupert Murdoch, philanthropist Eli Broad and Home Depot founder Ken Langone. Rhee’s group has pledged to spend more than $1 billion to bring for-profit schools, including virtual education, to the entire country by electing reform-friendly candidates and hiring top-notch state lobbyists.
A day before he opened his education reform conference to the media recently, Bush hosted another education meeting. This event, a private affair in the Palace Hotel, was a reconvening of investors and strategists to plan the next leg of the privatization campaign. Michael Moe, Susan Patrick, Tom Vander Ark and other major players were invited. I waited outside the event, trying to get what information I could. I asked Mayor Fenty how I could get in. “Just crash in, come on in,” he laughed, adding, “so what company are you with?” When he learned that I was a reporter, he shook his head. “Oh, nah, you’re not welcome, then.”
An invitation had billed the exclusive gathering as a chance for “philanthropists and venture capitalists” to figure out how to “leverage each other’s strengths”—a concise way to describe how for-profit virtual school companies are using philanthropy as a Trojan horse.