Online Education’s Lucrative Bottom Line

Sam Pizzigati

Corporate execs and billionaire ideologues are creating — at taxpayer expense — a network of schools where learning takes a back seat.

The sounds of September: school bells ringing, looseleaf binders snapping open, sneakers squeaking on gymnasium floors. Next to apple pie, what could be more American than sounds like these — and the local public schools where we hear them?

But times change. Blackboards and chalk no longer grace every classroom. We have whiteboards and classroom computers. We have the Internet, the capacity to share lessons across borders.

In this new Information Age, are local public schools now somewhat obsolete? Do we need a new model for educating our young? Some sort of educational revolution in teaching and learning?

Questions like these demand thoughtful and patient democratic deliberation. But we’re not getting that deliberation. In today’s deeply unequal America, we’re rushing instead toward a national educational future that profits the awesomely affluent few at the expense of America’s many.

The most striking manifestation of this rush: the near quarter-million students enrolled full-time in the “virtual schools” that now operate — at taxpayer expense — in 27 states. These schools have no physical classrooms, no playgrounds, and no in-person teachers.

In these online “academies,” young students sit in front of home computers. Their parents serve as “learning coaches,” following instructions they read on screen. Remotely located teachers monitor and grade the students. One of these remote teachers at the elementary level can have as many as 60 students.

The results from this “learning” process can be ugly. A New York Times investigation last December concluded that K12 Inc., one of the nation’s top two online school providers, “tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload, and lowering standards.”

In Tennessee, where a 2011 law let local school systems contract with for-profit online schools, about 1,800 K-8 students “attended” K12’s Tennessee Virtual Academy last year. Virtual Academy students, data from the state education department show, “performed in the bottom 11 percent of schools statewide.”

Other studies — out of Stanford and Western Michigan University — have shown similarly dismal academic results.

All these online schools owe their existence to our public tax dollars. How could local and state education officials allow public tax dollars to underwrite these virtual schools? Don’t we have rules and regulations designed to protect students from commercial exploitation?

We do. But in more and more states these rules don’t apply. What one analyst has described as a tight-knot network of “right-wing millionaires and billionaires, bankers, industrialists, lobby shops, and hardcore ideologues” is carving out an ever-growing space where “virtually” anything goes.

In Maine, for instance, the state’s right-wing governor has “formally embraced” a ten-point plan that sweeps away hard-won protections for students — and taxpayers.

The plan the governor backs axes “restrictions on online student-to-teacher ratios” and requires taxpayers to pay online providers by the same per-pupil funding formula that covers students in regular brick-and-mortar public schools.

The text for the Maine governor’s executive order earlier this year on behalf of online providers, the Portland Press Herald last week revealed, came directly from a Florida think tank funded by the online virtual school companies “that stand to make millions of dollars” as the governor’s new initiative goes forward.

These same corporations are spending a bundle more on lobbying and political contributions. And behind them lurk a host of super-rich conservative ideologues with a deep animus toward traditional public schools, facilities that they consider “islands of socialism in a free-market sea.”

Among these super rich: Dick and Betsey DeVos, heirs to the Amway fortune. They’re bankrolling the American Federation for Children and an assortment of other innocent-sounding groups that push public funding for private schools.

Meanwhile, regular public schools are facing massive budget shortfalls. In 35 states, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports, state education funding for the current school year has dropped below 2008 finding levels.

School districts have had to eliminate over 328,000 jobs — at the same time the nation’s K-12 student population has increased by 535,000 students.

Sign up for To MuchSchools today don’t just have more students to educate. In today’s depressed economy, they have more poor students. But corporate-friendly education “reformers” don’t like to talk about poverty.

For good reason. If you don’t talk about poverty, the absence of wealth, you don’t have to talk about wealth’s concentration — and the private power over public policy that this concentration inevitably forges.

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality published by the Institute for Policy Studies. Read the current issue or sign up here to receive Too Much in your email inbox.

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