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The Great Online School Scam

Noliwe Rooks | The New Press | February 20, 2018 | 5,064 words

Students are performing worse than ever, but private companies are making millions.

Posted inBooks, Current Events, Nonfiction, Story

The Great Online School Scam

Students are performing worse than ever, but private companies are making millions.
Photo: Getty Images.

Noliwe Rooks | Excerpt from Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education | The New Press | September 2017 | 18 minutes (5,064 words)

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DeVos’s ties to—and support for—the profoundly troubled virtual school industry run deep.

In a 2013 interview with Philanthropy Magazine, DeVos said her ultimate goals in education reform encompassed not just charter schools and voucher programs, but also virtual education. She said these forms were important because they would allow “all parents, regardless of their zip code, to have the opportunity to choose the best educational setting for their children.” Also in 2013, one of the organizations that she founded, the American Federation for Children, put out a sharply critical statement after New Jersey’s school chief, Chris Cerf, declined to authorize two virtual charter schools. The group said the decision “depriv[es] students of vital educational options.” Yet another group DeVos founded and funded, the Michigan-based Great Lakes Education Project, has also advocated for expansion of online schools, and in a 2015 speech available on YouTube DeVos praised “virtual schools [and] online learning” as part of an “open system of choices.” She then said, “We must open up the education industry—and let’s not kid ourselves that it isn’t an industry. We must open it up to entrepreneurs and innovators.” DeVos’s ties to—and support for—the profoundly troubled virtual school industry run deep.

At the time of her nomination, charter schools were likely familiar to most listeners given their rapid growth and ubiquity. However, the press surrounding the DeVos nomination may have been one of the first times most became aware of a particular offshoot of the charter school movement—virtual or cyber schools. Despite flying somewhat under the mainstream radar, online charter schools have faced a wave of both negative press and poor results in research studies. One large-scale study from 2015 found that the “academic benefits from online charter schools are currently the exception rather than the rule.” By June of 2016, even a group that supports, runs, and owns charter schools published a report calling for more stringent oversight and regulation of online charter schools, saying, “The well-documented, disturbingly low performance by too many full-time virtual charter public schools should serve as a call to action for state leaders and authorizers across the country.” The jointly authored research was sponsored by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and 50Can, all groups that lobby state and federal agencies to loosen regulations to allow more robust charter-school growth. As one of the report’s backers said, “I’m not concerned that Betsy DeVos supports virtual schools, because we support them too—we just want them to be a lot better.” Such an upswing in quality seems highly unlikely to happen anytime soon. They are yet another trickle in the stream of apartheid forms of public education flowing down from the wealthy and politically well connected to communities that are poor, of color, or both.

In Pennsylvania, Michigan, South Carolina, Ohio, and Florida, poor students from rural areas as well as those in underfunded urban schools that primarily educate students who are Black and Latino today face a new response to the question of how to solve the riddle of race, poverty, and educational underachievement. Increasingly, despite little supporting evidence, a growing number of states and local school districts no longer believe that the solution is merely about infrastructure, class size, funding, or hiring more teachers. In states with high levels of poverty and “hard to educate” Black and Latino students, virtual schools are on the rise. Such schools are not growing nearly as fast in school districts that are white and relatively wealthy, nor are they the educational strategy of choice in most private schools. As much a business strategy as one promoting learning, virtual education allows businesses to profit from racial inequality and poverty. Sadly, this particular cure to what ails our education system more often than not exacerbates the problems.

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