This prize-winning story by investigative reporter Colin Woodard follows the money trail in Maine, as Governor Paul LePage seeks to make a name for himself in the world of digital learning. It was originally published two years ago, but remains relevant. Woodard dug through more than 1,000 documents that he obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, and his story won the George Polk award.
Donna Garner is a retired teacher in Texas. She is conservative, politically and pedagogically. She is furious that the State Education Department is expanding the virtual charter school K12. Her commentary below shows what a hoax K12 is. Imagine getting credit for two years of Spanish in only eight weeks, and credit for one year of Environmental Science in only two days! Meanwhile, K12 gets full state tuition for enrolling these students. The corporation will use some of its profits to pay handsome executive salaries (its most recent CEO was paid $5 million a year), and it will use taxpayer dollars to advertise heavily for new students and to pay lobbyists to win entry into new markets or assure funding equal to that of real schools. This is about as close as one can get to a Ponzi scheme in education.
Donna Garner’ s post reminds us that the operative principle here is profit, not ideology.
5.18.14 – POSTED ON FACEBOOK BY TEXAS PARENT RE: TEXAS VIRTUAL SCHOOLS NETWORK (TXVSN)– FURTHER DOCUMENTATION THAT THE TXVSN IS A TOTAL FARCE!
[After I wrote and published the following article about the Texas Virtual Schools Network (5.18.14 – “Texas Virtual Academy: Another Failed Education Experiment” — http://www.educationviews.org/texas-virtual-academy-failed-ed-experiment/ ), a frustrated parent posted her comments on Facebook telling about her son’s experiences in TXVSN in their local school district.
Please read these comments from the bottom of the page upwards. I have removed the identifiers to protect this parent and her son. – Donna Garner]
8:00pm May 18
From S. Oh, and the grades were 90’s or better
7:59pm May 18
Donna, I questioned the curriculum dept, the virtual academy facilitators, teachers, school board and superintendent. I was made out to be the bad guy for questioning the program. How can a kid get a YEAR of Environmental Science in 2 days and 2 YEARS of Spanish in 8 weeks? My son will tell you he knows nothing about Spanish yet he got 2 credits for it.
7:43pm May 18
I can’t tell you how furious S.’s message makes me. I taught Spanish I and Spanish II for many years. When I think how hard my students had to work day in and day out for a full year to get that course credit, and then S.’s son finished those courses in a matter of weeks, I want to say bad words. How any school district could approve of such a plan by the Texas Virtual Academy [TXVSN] shows how truly lacking in concern for academic excellence many of our school administrators really are.
6:17pm May 18
So who decided to have the virtual business academy at XXXX High School?
5:56pm May 18
My son took several classes through the virtual academy [TXVSN]. He finished Spanish 1 and Spanish 2 in just weeks and Environmental Science in 2 days. I brought up this issue and NO ONE in the district seemed concerned but me.
K12, the online charter corporation founded by the Milken brothers, has received a series of terrible evaluations. The NCAA recently denied a score of K12 “schools” credit because of the poor quality of instruction. A CREDO study in Pennsylvania concluded that virtual charters performed wose than public schools or brick-and-mortar charter schools.
Major stories in the Néw York Times and the Washington Post have reported that K12 virtual charters have high attrition rates, low test scores, and low graduation rates.
But K12 is good at two things: recruitment and lobbying.
In this article, Jason Stanford reports that Texas Commissioner of Education Michael Williams just lifted the enrollment cap on K12. Williams was previously head of the Railroad Commission, which theoretically “regulates” the energy industry.
According to Stanford, Williams is a friend of K12’s lobbyist. He, along with other key state officials, attended her lavish birthday party in Wine Country. The GOP candidate for governor has pledged to increase funding for K12.
In Texas, it seems the #1 criterion for education funding is not need, but lobbying. Kids come last.
Morgan Smith of the Texas Tribune (published in thr New York Times) wrote about the secrecy that surrounds the finances of private corporations that manage schools and claim to be “public.”
They are “public” when it is time to get the money but their finances are private when asked to account for taxpayer money.
Basis, an Arizona charter chain, submitted an application to open a charter in San Antonio and this is what happened:
“On a recently approved Texas charter school application, blacked-out paragraphs appear on almost 100 of its 393 pages.
“Redactions on the publicly available online version of the application often extend for pages at a time. They include sections on the school’s plan to support students’ academic success, its extracurricular activities and the “extent to which any private entity, including any management company” will be involved in the school’s operation. The “shaded material,” according to footnotes, is confidential proprietary or financial information.”
“In Texas, commercial entities cannot run public schools. But when a school’s management — including accounting, marketing and hiring decisions — is contracted out to a private company, the distinction can become artificial. Such an arrangement raises questions about how to ensure financial accountability when the boundary between public and private is blurred, and the rules of public disclosure governing expenditures of taxpayer money do not apply.”
Some of the most secretive companies run virtual schools, paid for with public money:
“When The Texas Tribune made an open-records request for employee salary records and marketing expenses at the state’s full-time virtual schools, it received responses from all but one of those connected with for-profit entities indicating either that the records were not available or were not subject to public information laws.
“The Huntsville Independent School District, which went into partnership with K12 Inc. to open a virtual academy this year, said the district did not have documents responding to the request at the virtual campus as “it contracts with a private company to handle all employment of personnel and staffing-related data.”
“In other instances, The Tribune was directed to make a request to the private company. A lawyer for Responsive Ed Solutions, a charter school that also contracts with K12 Inc., wrote that most employees of its virtual school were hired by the company and provided the email address of a K12 lawyer. A K12 Inc. spokesman then told The Tribune that “confidential information about K12’s employees” could not be disclosed.”
Darcy Bedortha is a guest writer for Anthony Cody’s blog.
She tells her story as a Lead Teacher for a K12 virtual charter school.
She confirms all the worst fears of critics of virtual charters.
They make a lot of money. They are passionate about profits, not students.
Students need one-to-one contact with a human being. They don’t get it.
In a long and heartbreaking post, she writes:
I was an English teacher, so my students would write. They wrote of pain and fear and of not fitting in. They were the kinds of young people who desperately needed to have the protective circle of a community watching over them. They needed one healthy person to smile at them and recognize them by name every day, to say “I’m glad you’re here!” Many of my former students do not have that.
The last thing these young people needed, I came to realize during my time with K12 Inc., was to be isolated in front of a computer screen. A week or two or three would often go by without my getting a word from a student. They didn’t answer their email, they didn’t answer their phones. Often their phones were disconnected. Their families were disconnected. My students also moved a lot. During my first year at the school I spent days on the phone trying to track students down. This year I struggled to not simply give up under the weight of it all.
In the fall of 2013, 42 percent of our high school students were deemed “economically disadvantaged.” I had a number of students who were not native English speakers. I cannot wrap my head around how to serve a student who is unable to read or comprehend the language that the virtual curriculum is written in, let alone learn the technology (when it is functioning) without sitting beside them in the same space. Many of my non-native speakers had parents who did not speak English at all. These students often struggled for a very short time, and then I never saw their work again. They dropped out, moved on.
The school officials make millions of dollars. The virtual charter works for them.
Why are we allowing public dollars to flow to these non-educational institutions?
Silly question. They give campaign contributions. They lobby. They are strategic in advancing their goal: Profit.
You have never seen the name Whitney Tilson on my blog
before now. Tilson is a hedge fund manager who is a major supporter
of KIPP, Teach for America, and Democrats for Education Reform. I
have heard that he has written unpleasant things about me, like
calling me a union shill. I avoid mentioning him as I see no value
in personalizing issues and I try not to become engaged in ad
To my surprise, Tilson reached out to let me
know that he had written
a devastating critique of the online charter corporation
called K12. As a financier, he knows more about the business than I
could ever fathom. He wanted to let me know that we are in accord
that K12 delivers a poor quality of education.
I was glad to see a leader of this movement trying to clean out the Augean stables.
Also, I was gratified by his conciliatory action in writing me.
We have exchanged a few emails. At some point, we may meet. I have
never called him any names. Perhaps he will now stop questioning my
motives and recognize that I write with as much sincerity as he
does. He knows–perhaps he always knew–that I am financially
independent and had no reason to sell myself to the unions or
I support teachers’ unions, because I believe that
teachers need a collective voice, just as other groups
in society do (think: Chamber of Commerce,
AMA, ABA, DFER, Etc) I support unions, although I have never
belonged to one, because they protect the rights of working people
and help poor people enter the middle class. I believe the attacks
on unions—and their diminishing numbers— have contributed to
the growing income inequality in this country and the shrinking
It is good to tone down the rhetoric. But I will not
waver in my belief that public education, democratically
controlled, is a pillar of a democratic society.
Nor will I compromise my conviction that those entering the education
profession must be well prepared for the hard work of their chosen
Nor will I abandon my opposition to the widespread
assumption that test scores are the best and only way–or even an
accurate way–to measure students, teachers, or schools.
Nor will I be persuaded that schools alone can end poverty, no matter what
their scores. Schools are part of the solution, but much more is
needed, meaning social and economic change. We will see where this
goes. I appreciate Tilson’s offer to reason together. I am all for
that. What he wrote about K12 is devastating. Everyone should read
In a sign that informed opposition makes a difference, New Jersey State Commissioner Chris Cerf denied approval to two virtual charter schools.
“A year ago the two charters — a K-12 school in Newark and a high school for dropouts in Monmouth and Ocean Counties — appeared poised to become the state’s first all-online programs. Both had received preliminary approval from the Christie administration.
“But support slowly wilted over the past year, as community and political opposition mounted. And K12 Inc., the nation’s largest online education firm, was connected with both charter applications as well, prompting debate over the for-profit company’s role.”
The proposed K12 charter spokesman was furious. He released a letter expressing his disappointment:
““We now find ourselves in the position of having to tell 850 children, their families, and the teachers your staff insisted we hire as part of the compliance process that, once again, the school will be denied the opportunity to open and prove ourselves,” read the letter from Michael Pallante, chairman of the proposed school’s board.
“Not once during all of the hearings, trainings, demonstration sessions, e-mail, and telephone conversations were we ever told that this was going to happen to us and to these families once again,” he said.
The school noted that it had also hired experts to speak to the legality and effectiveness of the programs. K12 also signed on with the state’s top lobbying firm, Princeton Public Affairs Group.”
The other rejected school, aimed at dropouts, had trouble enrolling students and seemed likely to withdraw.
“This would have been a disaster for taxpayers and a disaster for children, and we are happy that he did the right thing,” said Julia Sass Rubin, a spokeswoman for Save Our Schools New Jersey, a pro-public school group.
Although K12 Inc. and Pearson’s Connections Academy have lobbied for approval of virtual for-profit charter schools in Maine, the state senate voted 22-13 to put a freeze on them until further study about their effectiveness. The vote fell two short of the 24 needed to override a veto by Governor Paul LePage, a recipient of campaign contributions from the online industry.
Lobbying by the online industry and ties between former Governor Jeb Bush and the LePage administration were the subject of an award-winning exposé in the Maine Sunday-Telegram last fall. LePage’s Commissioner of Education Stephen Bowen is a member of Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change, and the exposé last fall revealed that Bowen relied on Bush’s Organization, the Foundation for Educational Excellence, for ideas and legislative language.
Bowen still relies on Bush for policy guidance. Last month he announced an A-F grading system for Maine schools, an idea first implemented in Florida by then-Governor Bush. It is used in some places, like New York City, as a means to close schools and replace them with charter schools.
Regarding the moratorium, Commissioner Bowen said that the moratorium was “designed to halt the development of virtual schools.” Well, yes, that seems to be the point.
Cyber charters are profligate in wasting taxpayer dollars. A recent article on the Huffington Post reported that they spent nearly $100 million on advertising over a five year period. The biggest cyber charter, K12, spent more than $20 million in the first eight months of 2012.
In Ohio, home of rapacious and ineffective cyber charters, it costs the cyber operator $3,600 per student. But the corporation collects $6,300 per student. This leaves lots of dollars for profit and advertising.
Would it surprise you to know that the owners of the Ohio cyber charters give major campaign contributions to the governor and legislators?
I have written many posts about the scam and sham of cyber charters. They are highly profitable for their owners and investors, but study after study shows that they provide a poor education. Whatever their value for adults, whatever the value of an online course for a rural student, the cyber charters are a pitiful substitute for a real school with real teachers and real students and real human interaction.
Now comes the inside scoop from a teacher in a cyber charter school. It is very thing it’s critics feared and worse. It is all about making money for the corporation. It is bad education. That is, if you care about children or education or the future of our society.