YouTube U. — Just a Sled Run Away

The slope is slippery.  Paul LePage and Steve Bowen are counting on that fact.

18 months ago, Maine Republicans pushed through legislation allowing up to ten charter schools in the state.  Now LePage wants more of them.

” . . . Once you welcome in the Trojan horse of school choice, the idea that each child is entitled to a quality education by certified teachers at an accredited public school becomes harder to justify.”

Undoubtedly, LePage’s unrelenting disparagement of Maine public schools has been for the purpose of laying the groundwork for this initiative.  No matter that Maine public schools have a pretty strong record when compared to those in other states.  No matter that reports on the effectiveness charter schools are mixed at best.  No matter that there is no money (NO MONEY) for creating new schools while continuing to support the existing ones. This at a time in which the state is mired in a budget fiasco that gets worse by the week.

Which brings us to Exhibit A, New Hampshire — a state whose charter school and virtual charter school programs have been around for a while.  As the New Hampshire case shows, once you welcome in the Trojan horse of school choice, the idea that each child is entitled to a quality education by certified teachers in an accredited public school becomes harder to justify.  Somebody else can do it more cheaply — and that is where the students and the money will ultimately go.

In Manchester, New Hampshire, as a recent New York Times article shows, parents are up in arms because students are losing their access to courses taught by real teachers and instead are finding themselves taking online courses offered by the state-approved virtual charter school.

New Hampshire has found the sledding to be slick.  If Paul LePage gets what he wants, YouTube U. as a replacement for public education as we know it will be just a slippery slope away.

Dominoes Don’t Make Choices: The Plan to Profitize our Schools, Part V

After reading our previous four posts on this topic, some still might not feel the situation merits much alarm.  The American public school is an institution that has stood for hundreds of years — and this might lead one to believe that it is assured of healthily surviving hundreds more.   The fact that virtual learning is being presented as a choice tends tamp down the level of concern even further.  Only those parents who wish to will withdraw their children from public school to attend virtual school, right?

After the first few dominoes fall, the others don’t have much choice, however.  In this post, I’ll argue that allowing the choice of virtual schools isn’t simply a matter of individual choice, but is also a choice that, once made by some, will reduce the choice available to others.  A choice that will ultimately threaten the survival of rural Maine schools — and in many cases of the rural communities themselves.

Contrary to what conservatives would have you believe, school choice is already alive and well in America. Private schools, religious schools, home schools, correspondence schools, online schools, prep schools, and charter schools are included among the available options.  The real debate isn’t about the “choice” of where students attend classes — but whether taxpayer funds should be withdrawn from the local school if the student decides to go elsewhere.

For an example of how one the choice of one family might affect many others, let’s look at the loss of 15 students from a 500-student RSU.   Approximately $150,000 in state and local funding is then removed from the local school budget.  As a result, the RSU cuts two teachers. ( A likely additional side effect is that the teachers move out of town and there are now two less taxpayers in town and 4 fewer students attending school.)  The school also loses its art program.  Ten more students withdraw to attend virtual school or  a nearby RSU that still does have an art program.  The RSU loses an additional $100,000 and cuts an additional two teachers.  The school is now in a death spiral of diminishing revenues, program cuts, and shrinking enrollment.  Due to economies of scale, even with cuts, per pupil expenditures are sure to climb.  At some point especially since many of their children may already be attending elsewhere, local taxpayers are likely to feel they can no longer support a public school — and the doors will be closed for the last time.

When a community loses its public school, it loses more than that.  It loses everything from school plays to softball games to places to hold bean suppers.  It loses a school song and a set of alumni and a set of traditions.  It loses a hub and gathering place for parents and children. It loses a set of teachers and their families who must now go elsewhere. It loses a place for public meetings. It loses a prime selling point for new families looking to move into the region.

The survival of Maine’s rural schools and communities are already threatened.  Given current economic trends, the financial pressures facing rural communities will likely get worse before they get better.   Now, more than ever, the people of Maine need to do the opposite of what LePage and Bowen would have us do.  The people of Maine need to stand up and protect our rural schools.

Some states have now mandated that students take at least one digital course as a condition of graduation. Maine would be wise to do the opposite — and pass legislation stating that every student has the right to receive 80 percent or more of their education from a real live teacher.


Kids as Pawns: The Plan to Privatize our Schools, Part IV

In his Sept. 7 radio address, LePage insists he is promoting virtual schools as a way to put students first and castigates the opposition for “debating the needs of adults and administrators over the needs of students.”

Is it just a coincidence that ALEC, the national conservative organization that LePage has repeatedly aligned himself with, is working to destroy teachers unions and dismantle the public education system?  Isn’t it disingenuous to hold that LePage’s “students-first” approach and ALEC’s war on public education could both settle on school choice, charter schools, and online learning — but for such different reasons?

If we were to truly put the needs of young people first, the solution would look very different from a virtual school — of that you can be sure.  Given that obesity, technology addiction, substance abuse, and lack of aspirations are four of the biggest problems facing young people today, it is difficult to see how replacing public school attendance with having kids sit at home in front of a computer keyboard will solve any of these problems.  In fact, it is likely to make them worse.

In our previous post, we argued that virtual schools do poorly when it comes to academics.  Schools do much more than feed the intellect, however.  Especially in this time of latch-key kids, school is where students gain a sense of values and a sense of belonging.  Students learn to work with their hands and not just their minds.  Students learn to collaborate; they learn to discuss and to present.  The move around between classes.  They communicate.  They get involved in conflicts and learn to resolve them.  They learn to understand the perspectives of students very different from themselves. In short, they learn how to function citizens in a messy thing called democracy.

Kids are social creatures who want to move, create, and interact.  Nothing on a computer screen can replace the encouraging smile of a teacher or the hug of a classmate.  Nothing on a computer screen can help our kids develop heart.

The public school, like democracy itself, is an imperfect institution — but like democracy it is also far better than the alternative.  When it comes to education, right now, the public school is the best thing we’ve got.

Continue Reading:  The Plan to Profitize Our Schools, Part V

It’s Academic, but Not Really: The Plan to Profitize our Schools, Part III.

“Actual,” “authentic,” and “real,” are listed by as antonyms of the word, virtual.  Those still on the fence about virtual schools would do well to keep in mind that virtual schools are neither actual, authentic, nor real.

Virtual schools don’t have gymnasiums, performing art centers, art rooms, or science labs.  They don’t have counselors or cafeterias or co-curricular activities.  They offer only one thing — academics.  The trouble is that even in that area, they don’t do well at all.

When it comes to academics, the track record of virtual schools is not good. As Colin Woodard documents in “Studies: Existing full-time virtual schools earn poor grades,” students at virtual schools do poorly compared to their counterparts in public schools in terms of everything from graduation rates to math and reading.

An extensive New York Times study of K12, one of the largest online learning corporations, found that at one K12 virtual school, “Nearly 60 percent of its students are behind grade level in math. Nearly 50 percent trail in reading. A third do not graduate on time. And hundreds of children, from kindergartners to seniors, withdraw within months after they enroll.”

Unfortunately, the times found this kind of academic performance was fairly typical of K12-affiliated charter schools.

The TImes article goes on to state: “A look at the company’s operations, based on interviews and a review of school finances and performance records, raises serious questions about whether K12 schools — and full-time online schools in general — benefit children or taxpayers, particularly as state education budgets are being slashed . . . Instead, a portrait emerges of a company that tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards.”

Online courses are readily available at places like and , and since these courses are both excellent and available for free, it is unclear to us why Maine would want to divert money away from public schools and toward corporations with such dubious reputations as K12.

It would lead one to believe that maybe it’s not about the academics after all.

Continue Reading:  The Plan to Profitize Our Schools, Part IV

It’s About the Money: The Plan to Profitize Our Schools, Part II

For online learning companies such as K12 and Connections Learning, both of whom are poised to dip deeply into Maine education funds to the tune of $6,500 per student — it is definitely about the money.  For politicians like Paul LePage, who has already benefited in the form of campaign contributions, it is very much about the money.

LePage and Bowen will try to sell virtual schools to us under the guise of “choice,” but it’s still about the money.   For them it is about money “saved,” from the state education budget, which can augment the Tea Party goal of “downsizing” government.

If money were not an issue, there would be less to object to. The point is that Maine public schools are already underfunded. How then does it make sense to create a parallel system that will bleed money from the original system without reducing its costs?

Proponents of virtual schools might tout the $6,500 per pupil cost charged by online learning companies versus the $10,000 plus per student pupil incurred by students attending Maine public schools — a potential savings of $3,500 per student.

These numbers don’t tell the whole story, however.  A district that loses ten students to virtual schools still operates the same number of buses, employs the same number of teachers, and heats the same number of classrooms.  So unless the school itself is closed, where are the savings?

Then, there’s more.  According to the provided figures, a total virtual school enrollment of 4,000 students would cost the state $26 million.   This money would be going to out-of-state corporations and would be exempt from state income tax.  As explained above, this may not allow a significant reduction of teachers, but even if the state could cut 400 teachers (Maine currently has a 10:1 student to teacher ratio), the savings on salaries would be less than $20 million.  In this scenario, even after cutting 400 teachers, the state cost for education would actually increase by more than $6 million.

And then it gets worse.  Four hundred teachers are now unemployed, leading to a loss of  $15 – 20 million from the state economy.  If you include the multiplier effects gained from those teachers spending a significant portion of their salaries in Maine, the number is likely closer to $25 million.  Then add in the amount the state will lose in income, sales, and property taxes — and the number would likely balloon above $30 million.

Is this really a good time for Maine to be outsourcing jobs?

As we will outline tomorrow, the LePage plan doesn’t make any kind of educational sense, and it doesn’t make any kind of economic sense either.

(Part two of a five part series on the dangers of allowing online learning companies to gain a foothold in Maine.  For more information, please see Colin Woodard’s recent article in the Portland Press Herald and the recent Portland Press Herald editorial.)

 Continue Reading — The Plan to Profitize our Schools:  Part III

The LePage/Bowen/Bush/Koch Brothers Plan to Profitize Our Schools: 5 Dangers in 5 Days.

I:  The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.  The number one danger of the LePage/Bowen/Bush/Koch Brothers plan to privatize and profitize our schools is that the threat this plan represents will not be recognized soon enough by the people of Maine.

Pieces of the plan have arrived already, under the guise of school choice, the charter school bill, and LePage’s digital learning initiative.  Separately, these pieces look innocuous enough, but when pieced together, as Colin Woodard shows in his recent report, “The Profit Motive Behind Virtual Schools in Maine,” these initiatives can be recognized for what they are — back doors through which corporations can tap into public funds.  Back doors that will make it more difficult for already-challenged brick-and-mortar public schools to remain open.  Back doors that will allow in changes that will tear at the fabric of rural communities in Maine.

Paul LePage and Stephen Bowen are ready to sign on with Jeb Bush, the Koch Brothers, and the Foundation for Excellence.  Are we?

Considering the profound changes that virtual schools may bring not only to the lives of our children but to our society as a whole, we can be thankful that the charter schools panel defied LePage by refusing to be rushed into a decision on proposals from Maine Virtual Academy and Maine Connections Academy, which together would have removed 4,000 students (and the corresponding state and local funding) from Maine schools and enrolled them in virtual schools, with the tuition money going to out-of-state corporations.

It is only a matter of time, however, before the applications of these two virtual charter schools are re-submitted.  Hopefully, by the time that occurs, the people of Maine and the members of the charter committee will be ready to give them a resounding “no.”

Over the next four days, this blog will outline other concerns with virtual schools, including likely impacts on Maine students and Maine communities.

In the meantime, the Woodard article (also linked above) is a must-read for anyone wanting to know more about the issue.

 Continue Reading:  The Plan to Profitize Our Schools Part II