Illustration by Caitlin Kuhwald
In June 2010, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush traveled to Columbus, Ohio, to give the commencement speech for the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, the state's largest virtual charter school. ECOT, which provides K-12 online education for kids who never set foot inside a classroom, was celebrating its 10th anniversary and its largest graduating class—nearly 2,000 kids. Naturally, the event, held on the campus of Ohio State University, was webcast for those who couldn't make it.
Bush served up the usual graduation platitudes about the future. Then he hit on the reason he was saluting this particular school: digital learning. It was, he said, nothing short of a revolutionary approach, a way to meet "the unique needs of each student so that their God-given abilities are maximized, so they can pursue their dreams armed with the power of knowledge."
It wasn't the first time Bush had praised the wonders of online education. Over the past year, he's emerged as one of the nation's most prominent boosters of virtual schools, touring the country to promote technology as an instrument of creative destruction against the public school system. Last December, he teamed up with former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, a Democrat, to launch a new initiative called Digital Learning Now, which is aimed at tearing down legal barriers to public funding for virtual classrooms.
Bush has couched his initiative in the bipartisan language of reform, claiming it will strengthen public education by making it more efficient, affordable, and accountable. It's the kind of "21st-century thinking" that had Republicans begging him to run for president earlier this year—and if it helps position him for national office and connect him with potential corporate donors, so much the better. But beneath the rhetoric, the online-education push is also part of a larger agenda that closely aligns with the GOP's national strategy: It siphons money from public institutions into for-profit companies (including those that are supporting Bush's initiative). And it undercuts public employees, their unions, and the Democratic base. In the guise of a technocratic policy initiative, it delivers a political trifecta—and a big windfall for Bush's corporate backers.
Many of the companies supporting Bush's online-learning advocacy run virtual schools or provide online curricula and are hoping to cash in on the exponential growth in the sector, once a niche market for home-schoolers, child actors, and kids suffering from afflictions that prevented them from attending school; between 2009 and 2010, online-school enrollment jumped nearly 40 percent (PDF). But they have faced considerable obstacles to their expansion plans—everything from lawsuits by teachers' unions to state laws limiting enrollment in virtual classrooms. That's where Bush has come in, using his considerable political cachet to sell lawmakers and others on the online-learning vision.
So far, many states have approached the model cautiously—and for good reason. Some online schools have been beset with allegations of fraud (also a trend among charter schools; see "Schools for Scoundrels"). Many educators also question the wisdom of encouraging kids to spend even more time glued to a screen. But there's a bigger issue still: Many online schools simply aren't very good, ranking in some states among the most troubled schools. ECOT is Exhibit A.
In December 2010, Bush's Digital Learning Council—a group of industry execs, policymakers, and education officials convened by Digital Learning Now—issued a report (PDF) detailing the "10 elements of high quality digital learning." On the list was a call for state policymakers to "hold schools and providers accountable for achievement and growth." If kept to that standard, ECOT would likely have been shut down years ago.
Taking a creative view of its contract, ECOT even set up a computer lab in an old gas station.
With more than 10,000 kids, ECOT is bigger than some of Ohio's 609 school districts. But its test scores rank above those of just 14 other districts. In 2010, barely half of its third-graders scored (PDF) proficient or better on state reading tests, and only 49 percent scored proficient in math, compared with state averages of 80 percent and 82 percent, respectively. ECOT's graduation rate has never exceeded 40 percent. ("The method used to calculate the official graduation rate does not consider students who take more than four years to graduate from high school," an ECOT spokesman says. "ECOT enrolls many students who are years behind their peers before they enroll with ECOT. ECOT graduates a large percentage of its population.")
The school also has a dubious track record in other areas. A 2001 audit (PDF) conducted after its first year of operations found that while the state had paid it to educate more than 2,000 students during one month, a mere seven kids had actually logged on to ECOT's computer system; state auditors couldn't verify that the rest of its student body even existed. In 2002, state officials forced ECOT to repay Ohio $1.7 million for these and other violations.
In Ohio, ECOT's charter prohibits it from opening physical classrooms, a restriction that seriously curbs its growth. After all, there are only so many parents in a position to stay home all day to make sure the kids stay off Facebook and do their work.
ECOT, though, has found a way around this. It has enrolled students in places that serve at-risk kids (who are also more likely to fetch higher school reimbursement rates), such as homes for pregnant teens and residential addiction-treatment centers. Taking a creative view of its contract, which allowed students to "supplement" their home learning by using an ECOT computer at a designated location, it even set up a computer lab in an old gas station. The state investigated three ECOT centers in 2006, looking into allegations that the labs violated a host of laws. (ECOT, which had contracted with a third party to operate these centers, ultimately shut them down.)
According to a lawsuit filed against the school by another company, one of the people helping ECOT broaden its student body was its head of "alternative learning communities," Alex Kadenyi, a man with a lengthy rap sheet that included convictions for resisting arrest and various drunk-driving offenses. In 2007, while working for ECOT, Kadenyi was arrested for smuggling drugs into the Medina County jail. He pleaded no contest and was given probation, which he later violated by testing positive for cocaine.