Special Report: How Virtual Ed. Companies Influence Policy

By guest blogger Mike Bock


A new report from The Portland Press Herald (Maine) delivered a scathing take on virtual schools and Maine’s educational policy, shedding light on the industry’s lobbying efforts and close ties with educational policy group Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Reporter Colin Woodard suggested that virtual education companies have supplied policy advice and legislation to Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen and Gov. Paul LePage, who issued an executive order advocating a number of pro-digital learning policies on February 1.

According to the Press Herald, virtual education companies such as K12 Inc. and Connections Learning are influencing policy by giving money to the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Foundation for Educational Excellence, which then draft bills for Maine’s legislature and recommend policy for Stephen Bowen. In addition, the article identifies Patricia Levesque, the executive director of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, as the owner of a private firm which lobbies Florida officials on behalf of digital education company Blackboard Connect. The article suggests that the partnership would be considered a conflict of interest, since companies stand to benefit from new laws that make virtual education funding a priority.
Bowen rejected the criticism, telling the paper that he only took advice from the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Foundation for Educational Excellence, and policy decisions ultimately rest on the state’s legislature:

“Lots and lots of people are involved in public policy, and at the end of the day, the ideas are what matters, and I have to have good ideas when I am standing downstairs at the (State House’s) education committee,” Bowen said. “Our job as policymakers is to take ideas from wherever they come from and throw them against the wall and see what they can do.”

My colleague Jason Tomassini has written extensively on the increased scrutiny that virtual learning companies like K12 Inc. are now facing. The company wrote in its 2011 annual report that state-level lobbying is necessary to fight “harmful” legislation “aggravated by negative media.”
But as the Portland Press Herald reported, critics see the situation much differently:

“One of the striking things about these reforms is the extent to which they remove control of the schools from democratic governance and turn them over to corporate decisionmaking and appointed bodies,” says Alex Molnar, research professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s National Education Policy Center. “Education policy is now being made to some degree by people who have a financial stake in what they are making policy about.”

Bowen later responded to the allegations in an op-ed in the Press Herald, by saying state legislators on both sides of the political spectrum routinely seek the assistance of outside groups when developing policy and legislation. You can read Bowen’s response here.
My colleague Katie Ash wrote that legislation passed in 2011 in Maine paved the way for full-time online learning options by allowing the creation of charter schools, including virtual charters. As of March, no charter schools have been approved by the State Charter School Commission.

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