This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
If the national movement to “reform” public education through vouchers, charters and privatization has a laboratory, it is Florida. It was one of the first states to undertake a program of “virtual schools”—charters operated online, with teachers instructing students over the Internet—as well as one of the first to use vouchers to channel taxpayer money to charter schools run by for-profits.
But as recently as last year, the radical change envisioned by school reformers still seemed far off, even there. With some of the movement’s cherished ideas on the table, Florida Republicans, once known for championing extreme education laws, seemed to recoil from the fight. SB 2262, a bill to allow the creation of private virtual charters, vastly expanding the Florida Virtual School program, languished and died in committee. Charlie Crist, then the Republican governor, vetoed a bill to eliminate teacher tenure. The move, seen as a political offering to the teachers unions, disheartened privatization reform advocates. At one point, the GOP’s budget proposal even suggested a cut for state aid going to virtual school programs.
Lamenting this series of defeats, Patricia Levesque, a top adviser to former Governor Jeb Bush, spoke to fellow reformers at a retreat in October 2010. Levesque noted that reform efforts had failed because the opposition had time to organize. Next year, Levesque advised, reformers should “spread” the unions thin “by playing offense” with decoy legislation. Levesque said she planned to sponsor a series of statewide reforms, like allowing taxpayer dollars to go to religious schools by overturning the so-called Blaine Amendment, “even if it doesn’t pass…to keep them busy on that front.” She also advised paycheck protection, a unionbusting scheme, as well as a state-provided insurance program to encourage teachers to leave the union and a transparency law to force teachers unions to show additional information to the public. Needling the labor unions with all these bills, Levesque said, allows certain charter bills to fly “under the radar.”
If Levesque’s blunt advice sounds like that of a veteran lobbyist, that’s because she is one. Levesque runs a Tallahassee-based firm called Meridian Strategies LLC, which lobbies on behalf of a number of education-technology companies. She is a leader of a coalition of government officials, academics and virtual school sector companies pushing new education laws that could benefit them.
But Levesque wasn’t delivering her hardball advice to her lobbying clients. She was giving it to a group of education philanthropists at a conference sponsored by notable charities like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. Indeed, Levesque serves at the helm of two education charities, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a national organization, and the Foundation for Florida’s Future, a state-specific nonprofit, both of which are chaired by Jeb Bush. A press release from her national group says that it fights to “advance policies that will create a high quality digital learning environment.”
Despite the clear conflict of interest between her lobbying clients and her philanthropic goals, Levesque and her team have led a quiet but astonishing national transformation. Lobbyists like Levesque have made 2011 the year of virtual education reform, at last achieving sweeping legislative success by combining the financial firepower of their corporate clients with the seeming legitimacy of privatization-minded school-reform think tanks and foundations. Thanks to this synergistic pairing, policies designed to boost the bottom lines of education-technology companies are cast as mere attempts to improve education through technological enhancements, prompting little public debate or opposition. In addition to Florida, twelve states have expanded virtual school programs or online course requirements this year. This legislative juggernaut has coincided with a gold rush of investors clamoring to get a piece of the K-12 education market. It’s big business, and getting bigger: One study estimated that revenues from the K-12 online learning industry will grow by 43 percent between 2010 and 2015, with revenues reaching $24.4 billion.