Classroom Technology

Former Education Secretary Starts Online-Learning Venture

By Mark Walsh — January 10, 2001 3 min read
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Former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett is ringing a bell to draw students into an ambitious new Internet schoolhouse that will pair current technology with his traditionalist view of learning.

The for-profit venture is called K12 and is backed by Knowledge Universe Learning Group, an affiliate of the education and training company led by the former financier Michael R. Milken. The Web-based school plans eventually to provide a full curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade. It will also offer supplementary courses and assessments.

William J. Bennett

One major target of the new venture will be the growing number of home schooling families. But K12’s backers also contemplate providing courses to public schools and forming online charter schools.

The Dec. 27 announcement of the company’s formation attracted attention in part because Mr. Bennett has been skeptical of using computers in classrooms. In his 1999 book The Educated Child, the former education secretary under President Reagan warned parents about the “next pitch about cyber-enriching your child’s education,” adding that “so far, there is no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly improve learning.”

In an interview, Mr. Bennett said there was no contradiction between such skepticism and the launch of a cyber- school.

“We say ‘traditional learning, powerful technology,’ ” said Mr. Bennett, the company’s chairman.

“The technology is there to get the student to the substance,” he added. “It’s not a matter of whiz-bang and whistles and cool colors.”

Starting With K-2

David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale University and another critic of the way technology has been used in schools, has been hired as the venture’s technology adviser.

Ron Packard, an executive with Mr. Milken’s Menlo Park, Calif.-based Knowledge Universe, will serve as the chief executive officer. Knowledge Universe’s Learning Group unit has reportedly invested an initial $10 million in the venture.

Board members include Lowell Milken, Mr. Milken’s brother and a partner in Knowledge Universe, and Chester E. Finn Jr., who served as the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for research under Mr. Bennett and was a co-author of The Educated Child.

K12’s services are slated to launch next fall with a complete curriculum for grades K-2 and other courses and educational tools, with plans to add three grades a year. The company says the basic cost of enrolling full time will start at about $1,200 per year, but the figure will be as much as $5,000 for families adding personal tutoring, computer equipment, and other extras.

The curriculum is expected to hew closely to Mr. Bennett’s educational philosophy, which favors phonics-based reading instruction and an early foundation in basic arithmetic. K12’s mathematics curriculum will be based on California’s rigorous standards, company officials say.

The McLean, Va.-based company will target charter schools and could even organize “virtual” charter schools in some states, which would allow tuition costs to be covered by taxpayer dollars.

K12’s competitors include Apex Learning Inc., which offers online Advanced Placement courses to high school students nationwide, and Class.com, a for-profit affiliate of the University of Nebraska that also offers high school courses.

Mr. Bennett’s venture drew immediate flak from the American Federation of Teachers, which has been critical of the growing involvement of for-profit companies in education.

“An excellent elementary and secondary education cannot be based solely on technology,” AFT President Sandra Feldman said in a prepared statement. “We will have to wait and see if the quality of this particular product is as grandiose as Mr. Bennett’s quotes.”

One obvious market for a virtual school based on Mr. Bennett’s approach is home schooling families, many of whom are conservative Christians who favor a traditional curriculum and methods.

“I think there is a new breed of home schooler coming into the movement who will find this kind of service attractive, especially as it expands to the older grades,” said Michael P. Farris, the chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association and the president of Patrick Henry College, a small institution aimed at children who were home-schooled. Both are based in Purcellville, Va.

Staff Writer Andrew Trotter contributed to this story.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as Former Education Secretary Starts Online-Learning Venture

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