Stephen Bowen was excited and relieved.
Maine’s education commissioner had just returned to his Augusta office last October after a three-day trip to San Francisco, where he attended an education summit convened by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, which had paid for the trip.
He’d heard presentations on the merits of full-time virtual public schools—ones without classrooms, playgrounds, or in-person teachers—and watched as Mr. Bush unveiled the “first ever” report card praising the states that had given online schools the widest leeway.
But what had Mr. Bowen especially enthusiastic was his meeting with Mr. Bush’s top education aide, Patricia Levesque. She runs the foundation but is paid through her private firm, which lobbies Florida officials on behalf of online education companies.
Mr. Bowen was preparing an aggressive reform drive on initiatives intended to dramatically expand and deregulate online education in Maine, but he felt overwhelmed.
“I have no ‘political’ staff who I can work with to move this stuff through the process,” he emailed her from his office.
Happy to Help
Ms. Levesque replied not to worry; her staff in Florida would be happy to suggest policies, write laws and gubernatorial decrees, and develop strategies to ensure they were implemented.
“When you suggested there might be a way for us to get some policy help, it was all I could do not to jump for joy,” Mr. Bowen wrote Ms. Levesque from his office.
“Let us help,” she responded.
So was a partnership formed between Maine’s top education official and a foundation entangled with the very companies that stand to make millions of dollars from the policies it advocates.
In the months that followed, according to more than 1,000 pages of emails obtained by a public-records request, the commissioner would rely on the foundation to provide him with key portions of his education agenda. These included draft laws, the content of the administration’s digital education strategy, and the text of Gov. Paul LePage’s Feb. 1 executive order on digital education.
A Portland Press Herald investigation found large portions of Maine’s digital education agenda are being guided behind the scenes by out-of-state companies that stand to capitalize on the changes, especially the nation’s two largest private K-12 online education providers.
K12 Inc. of Herndon, Va., and Connections Education, the Baltimore-based subsidiary of education publishing giant Pearson, are both seeking to expand online offerings and to open full-time virtual charter schools in Maine, with taxpayers paying the tuition for the students who use the services.
At stake is the future of thousands of Maine schoolchildren who would enroll in the full-time virtual schools and, if the companies have their way, the future of tens of thousands more who would be legally required to take online courses at their public high schools in order to receive their diplomas.
The two companies have at times acted directly, spending tens of thousands of dollars lobbying lawmakers in Augusta, the state capital, and nurturing the creation of the supposedly independent boards for the proposed virtual schools they would operate and largely control.
More often, they have worked through intermediaries. K12 Inc. donated $19,000 to Gov. LePage’s election campaign through a political action committee. K12 and Connections Education provided support to Jeb Bush’s foundation and to a controversial corporate-funded organization for state legislators, the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. Both K12 and Connections Education built relationships with Maine lawmakers and officials who introduced laws and policies beneficial to the companies’ bottom lines.
Advocates vs. Critics
Defenders of full-time virtual schools say the schools will diversify and enrich Maine’s educational landscape, providing additional options—and substantial new curricular resources—for parents and students who wish to use them. The big online education companies have developed a wide range of courses and products, which they can provide at a lower per-pupil cost than a conventional class.
“We took a cautious approach in Maine, and the winner here will be everybody: the company that provides a good product; the state; and most importantly, the student,” said Sen. Garrett Mason, a Republican, who sponsored the state’s 2011 charter school law that made such schools possible.
“The number-one reason parents chose this form of education is the ability to have a more personalized form of schooling that will better suit their student’s needs,” said Connections Education Chief Executive Officer Barbara Dreyer. “Maine has a lot of independent-minded people in it who will find an education that’s very flexible and personalized very attractive.”
Critics charge that the online education companies that wish to operate Maine’s virtual schools divert precious public education dollars into profits and dividends while providing education of dubious quality.
“There’s this drumbeat at state legislatures to pass what I think is a scam to milk dollars out of public schools,” said Rep. Andy O’Brien, a Democrat, who sponsored an unsuccessful amendment to last year’s charter school bill that would have closed the door to full-time virtual schools, which already exist in 27 states. “If you’re an investor these days with the economy going down, where are you going to invest? Oh, look, there’s a trillion dollars in public education funds waiting to be manipulated.”
“Speaking as an educator and someone concerned about the next generation of kids and their health and well-being, these things are disastrous,” said Gene Glass, a senior researcher at the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “But do they have a future? Yeah, they probably have a great future financially because they line up with the need of states to cut their costs and they are cheap.”
Ties to ALEC
In many states, the companies have also advanced their interests through their memberships in the American Legislative Exchange Council. While ALEC claims to be a nonpartisan professional association for state legislators, critics say it is really a corporate-funded conduit allowing businesses to write legislation for compliant lawmakers. Virtually all of its funding comes from its corporate members—which include K12 Inc. and Pearson’s Connections Education—who have collective veto power over the text of its model bills, which cover everything from “right to work” labor laws to “stand your ground” gun laws. They also in effect pay the expenses of many legislative members to attend meetings.
ALEC’s membership lists and the model bills it provided to legislators were secret until last year, when they were obtained and published by a watchdog group, the Center for Media and Democracy.
The corporate chair of ALEC’s education committee was revealed to be Mickey Revenaugh, Connections Education’s senior vice president of state relations, and members included K12, the International Association for K12 Online Learning, and Mr. Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. (Connections Education withdrew its membership in May.)
Mr. Bowen was also an ALEC member in March 2011, the month he was confirmed as Maine’s education commissioner, according to a second set of ALEC documents leaked to Common Cause, a nonpartisan watchdog organization, and posted on that group’s website this summer. Mr. Bowen—then a senior adviser to Gov. LePage and the head of education initiatives for the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center—served as a private-sector member of ALEC’s education committee, where he worked alongside officials from K12 Inc., Connections, and other interested companies evaluating and approving model bills—including one creating centralized state clearinghouses for the sale of online courses.
The leaked documents also showed that ALEC-sponsored digital education bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country in recent years. (“Controversial Policy Group Casts Long K-12 Shadow,” April 20, 2012.)
“This is the ideal form of crony capitalism,” said Mr. Glass from the National Education Policy Center, which receives some of its funding from the National Education Association. “These are free-market entrepreneurial companies manipulating the law to create markets for themselves.”
Late last year, K12 Inc. contacted several influential individuals in Maine, suggesting they form a board, apply for a charter, and hire the Virginia company to provide the services.
“They did approach us, and before we made a provisional decision to go along with them, we went out to look at other companies,” said Maine Turnpike Authority Executive Director Peter Mills, who serves as secretary of the eight-member board of the proposed Maine Virtual Academy, one of two taxpayer-financed virtual schools proposed in Maine. “K12 is pretty impressive, so we are stuck with them.”
“They have enormous capacity, and their materials and methods have been extremely well thought out,” added Mr. Mills, on being asked about studies that question the company’s educational performance. “Whether they succeed or fail everywhere is another question; it depends on how strong the local board is.”
Connections Education helped set up a rival bid to create the Maine Connections Academy. Its board consists of Rep. Amy Volk, a Republican and the sponsor of several ALEC-drafted education bills this past term; state Republican Party vice chair Ruth Summers, the wife of Secretary of State and U.S. Senate candidate Charlie Summers; Pioneer Telephone founder Peter Bouchard; and former state Sen. Carol Weston, a Republican whom ALEC named 2008 State Legislator of the Year and who now heads the Maine chapter of Americans for Prosperity, an organization founded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, who are also major donors to ALEC.
Ms. Dreyer, the Connections Education CEO, said that she didn’t know the particulars of what happened in Maine, but typically the company is contacted by enthusiastic people in the state “who have already done their research” and want to work with the company. “It’s not a case where we go in, identify a state, and then call up our friends and buddies and say, ‘Do you want to be on the board?’ ” she said.
Earlier this year, Connections and K12 entities applied to the new independent state charter school commission for permission to start full-time virtual schools in Maine. According to its application, K12’s school was to grow to 1,000 students, and expected to receive $6,287 to $6,735 for each one from the state treasury, depending on grade level. Connections’ school would have 3,000 students.
Plans Put on Hold
On June 7, the charter school commissioners set aside both applications, expressing concern both about the proposed schools’ level of independence from the for-profit online education companies from which they would contract their services and the all-volunteer commission’s competence to evaluate their proposals in the time available.
“By statute, you have to have a governing board that has an arm’s-length relationship with any organization they would hire to perform the virtual contract,” said the charter commission’s chair, Jana Lapoint. “Those contracts need to be scrutinized very carefully because unfortunately they don’t have that sort of relationship.”
For instance, in its application, Maine Virtual Academy delegates all day-to-day management and operations to two officials, both of whom are to be recruited and employed by K12, as would be teachers.
The school’s board would play little or no role in the hiring of these officials. “K12 itself is in the best position to make final hiring and supervisory decisions relative to the administrators,” the application reads.
The charter school commission’s decision to postpone evaluation of the virtual schools’ applications elicited a fiery June 11 letter from Gov. LePage, who suggested they reconsider or resign.
The commissioners stood by their decision, and both entities recently withdrew their applications, though they said they intend to reapply next year.
A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 2012 edition of Education Week as Virtual Ed. Providers Work to Influence State Policy in Maine