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Cross posted at Dirigo Blue

The right wing advocacy group Maine Heritage Policy Center (MHPC) published another promotion piece on online digital learning yesterday, featuring the photo below of a "classroom" at a Carpe Diem school in Arizona.

The piece was written by Amanda Clark, who is described as an educational policy analyst, despite that she has no formal training in education policy and that her teaching experience is limited to "seven months as an English-speaking teacher’s assistant for a high school in Normandy, France."

Clark begins by describing what is common in many public schools in Maine and across the nation: a 3rd Grade class with one teacher and 25 students. Clark writes:

Mrs. Sucy is a terrific teacher and she recognizes her students each learn in different ways – some by doing, some audibly, some visually. However, there’s just not enough time in a day to fully meet each of her students varying needs. Mrs. Sucy’s 25 students are akin to train cars all on the same track, all forced to go the same speed, run by one engine.  If she as the engine slows the train down, Mason will be altogether bored and break away. If she speeds up to accommodate Mason, she’ll certainly lose students, and most definitely blast Sophia beyond her speed!
Clark then proceeds to expound on how technology is the solution to the limited time that Mrs. Sucy (who apparently has no first name) has to focus on each of her 25 charges. Clark is so set on promoting online learning, the idea that reducing the classroom size by half never enters the discussion. That schools also provide opportunities to develop social skills seems lost on Clark, who instead focuses on flexibility of online learning:
Students enrolled in full time online learning perhaps have the most flexibility in their education. Rather than a traditional brick and mortar school setting, students “log on” to school with the click of a button on their computer from anywhere with internet...a home desktop, an airplane, a hospital bed, a hotel room, the list is endless.
There is no question that advances in technology can and should play a role in public schools. Many classrooms are now equipped with interactive whiteboards, which not only allow for traditional "chalkboard" type use, but are connected to the internet and other databases. (One can envision a time in the near future in which an interactive whiteboard is linked to an iPad or other such device on each student's desk.) In rural areas, the internet and remote teaching provide opportunities for students that would otherwise not be possible - especially for older students.

But those promoting online learning seek to replace teachers with computer programs. These situations would not only look like the photo above, but be used by parents that wish to home school their children, under the aegis of a charter school. In Clark's piece she mentions three such organizations - Carpe Diem, mentioned above, and K12, Inc. and Connections Academy. In 2011, the New York Times had this look at the profit motive behind online learning organizations:

Kids mean money. Agora [run by K12, Inc.] is expecting income of $72 million this school year, accounting for more than 10 percent of the total anticipated revenues of K12, the biggest player in the online-school business. The second-largest, Connections Education, with revenues estimated at $190 million, was bought this year by the education and publishing giant Pearson for $400 million.

The business taps into a formidable coalition of private groups and officials promoting nontraditional forms of public education. The growth of for-profit online schools, one of the more overtly commercial segments of the school choice movement, is rooted in the theory that corporate efficiencies combined with the Internet can revolutionize public education, offering high quality at reduced cost.

And despite the challenges presented by the  student teacher ratio of 25 to 1 in Mrs. Sucy's class, the Times piece notes:
The online companies can tailor their programs by reducing curriculum and teachers. During a presentation at the Virginia legislature this year, a representative of Connections explained that its services were available at three price points per student:

Option A: $7,500, a student-teacher ratio of 35-40 to 1, and an average teacher salary of $45,000.

Option B: $6,500, a student-teacher ratio of 50 to 1, with less experienced teachers paid $40,000.

Option C: $4,800 and a student-teacher ratio of 60 to 1, as well as a narrower curriculum.

And there's money to be made in online learning: in 2011, the CEO of K12, Inc., Ronald Packard, earned a total compensation package worth $5 million.

In February 2012, Gov. Paul LePage issued an executive order mandating the "Maine Department of Education shall develop a strategic plan to expand digital learning opportunities for Maine students." The executive order cites the “10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning, as defined by the Digital Learning Council in 2010." We took a look at the Digital Learning Council at the time, but its members include:

Jeb Bush, Co-Chair
Bob Wise, Co-Chair
Kevin Chavous, Black Alliance for Educational Options
Joel Klein, former Chancellor NYC Public Schools
Patricia Levesque, Executive Director of the Foundation for Excellence in Education
Douglas Levin, Executive Director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association
Dane Linn, National Governors Association
Gregory McGinity, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation
Giséle Huff, Executive Director of the Jaquelin Hume Foundation
Susan Patrick, President and CEO of International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL)
Gerard Robinson, Virginia Secretary of Education

In September 2012, Colin Woodard had this piece on the profit motive behind virtual schools in Maine, in which he described the relationship between Maine Education Commissioner Steve Bowen and Patricia Levesque:

[W]hat had Bowen especially enthusiastic was his meeting with Bush'€™s top education aide, Patricia Levesque, who runs the foundation but is paid through her private firm, which lobbies Florida officials on behalf of online education companies.

Bowen was preparing an aggressive reform drive on initiatives intended to dramatically expand and deregulate online education in Maine, but he felt overwhelmed."€œI have no '€˜political'€™ staff who I can work with to move this stuff through the process,"€ he emailed her from his office.

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. "€œWhen 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,"€ Bowen wrote Levesque from his office.

"€œLet us help," she responded.

On Friday, 22 March, Gov. LePage will host a Conference on Education. The event is free and open to the public - registration required at the link above.

Full disclosure - my wife is a public school teacher.

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