Investigation Spotlights Corporate Money Behind Virtual Schools

Studies have shown that virtual schools don’t deliver as good an education as traditional public schools. But that hasn’t stopped privateers from championing for-profit online education, raising serious concerns about how corporate money continues to shape many of the education policies being implemented across the country.

A recent investigation by the Portland Press Herald revealed that a bulk of the proposed education bills in Maine have been crafted by out-of-state private companies that would profit greatly from so-called “reforms”  –  namely the establishment of virtual charter schools throughout the state by the two largest online education corporations, K12 Inc. and Connections Education.

“This is the ideal form of crony capitalism,” Gene Glass, senior researcher at the National Education Policy Center, told the Herald. “These are free market entrepreneurial companies manipulating the law to create markets for themselves.”

Crafting bills to permit the use of taxpayer dollars to establish virtual charter schools in the state, Maine’s education commissioner, Stephen Bowen, relied heavily on support and strategic guidance from the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE). Founded by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, FEE is a leading advocate of virtual school programs and receives funding from K12 Inc. and Connections Education. Under Bush, Florida became one of the first states to incorporate virtual schooling into its education program, and the former governor has spent much of his time out of office crisscrossing the nation espousing the virtues of charter schools and privatized online education.

Outside of their close ties with FEE, K12 Inc. and Connections Education buttressed their foray into Maine by utilizing their considerable financial means to grease the state’s political wheels. According to the Portland Press Herald, K12 Inc. contributed $19,000 to the political action committee supporting the election of Republican Gov. LePage in 2010, and both K12 Inc. and Connections Education actively lobbied state lawmakers to the tune of over $30,000 in support of Maine’s charter school bill that allowed for the creation of virtual schools but mandated that they be approved by a state charter school commission.

Largely through lobbying state lawmakers on behalf of their own interests, online education companies have been able to open virtual schools in forty-four states. Supporters argue that these schools are essential additions to the state’s education services and are needed now more than ever as budget cuts require cost effective alternatives to public education. But privatized online education has been empirically shown to be a greater problem rather than a ready solution. Even as the number of students enrolled in online programs has grown, these companies have continued to foster a culture where profits outweigh actual student performance.

A study released by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado found that students who participated in K12 Inc.’s virtual schooling program were more likely to fall behind in reading and math, graduate late, and move between schools or drop out altogether at a rate significantly higher than students who attended traditional schools.

“Computer-assisted learning has tremendous potential,” says Dr. Gary Miron, lead author of NEPC’s report. “But at present, our research shows that virtual schools such as those operated by K12 Inc. are not working effectively. States should not grow full-time virtual schools until they have evidence of success.”

“Years ago, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future had it right when they said the most important thing to do was to put a qualified teacher in front of the student,” says Rob Walker, Executive Director of the Maine Education Association. “The Maine Education Association has serious concerns about companies that only offer a computer screen without the guidance, direction and encouragement of a live, caring teacher.”

Citing serious misgivings over poor academic performances in virtual schools, Maine’s charter school commission decided to shelve the applications from K12 Inc. and Connections Education, who promised to reapply next year. Even though Gov. LePage angrily called on the commission’s members to reconsider their decision or resign from their posts, Maine is not the only state where the effectiveness of online schooling is being questioned.

Lawmakers in Tennessee are demanding more accountability from K12 Inc. schools after only 16.4 percent of virtual students scored proficient on the math portion of the TCAP tests. In Florida, the state’s Department of Education is investigating alleged improprieties committed by K12 Inc. after allegations arose that the company utilized uncertified teachers in violation of state law and then asked its employees to cover up the practice. This all comes on the heels of similar virtual school initiatives shot down in New Jersey and North Carolina over skepticism of their commitment to students before profit.

While the incorporation of technology into the classroom is essential, the academic success rate of for-profit virtual charter schools is incomparable to that of traditional public schools, where academic success is the paramount concern.

“The purpose of investors is to make money. Education is an almost billion dollar a year industry,” National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel remarked in a recent interview on C-SPAN. “But the purpose and motivation behind any program should always be to do what is right for the students, not what is right for the providers.”