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Jeb Bush's Cyber Attack on Public Schools

Is the former Florida governor's online-education advocacy: A) a stealth attack on teachers' unions; B) presidential positioning; C) an effort to divert public money to private corporations; D) all of the above?

After that, parents are supposed to read the student Make Way for Ducklings. Parents are told to ask, "Why did Mrs. Mallard decide not to hatch her eggs in the public gardens?" Then, K12 instructs parents to have Sarah draw a nice place for a duck to live. Lesson complete! This 21st-century online assignment could just as easily have been an old-fashioned correspondence course.

"Every once in a while I reported that my Johnny didn't get it," says an education researcher. "They just said repeat the lesson until you get it right."

Lessons for middle schoolers are marginally better. An eighth-grade lesson on Romeo and Juliet involves clicking through a series of slides about Shakespeare and answering some multiple-choice questions. In one section, students are asked to choose a definition of "loins." According to K12, the correct answer is "families." (Presumably the dictionary definition might offend the home-schooling base.) There's one chance for students to do their own writing, but the program doesn't include an opportunity to have someone read it. Perhaps that's Mom's job.

In 2004 (PDF), NEPC fellow Susan Ohanian created three online student identities in a K12 school and took all of the first- and second-grade history classes offered as a research project. "The adult has to do a lot of work," she says. "I complained bitterly about the amount of stuff you had to print out for the child to color." And that vaunted individualized education? "Every once in a while I reported that my Johnny didn't get it," Ohanian says. "They just said repeat the lesson until you get it right."

Angelique Smith, a Pennsylvania mother who enrolled her allergy-prone daughter in a K12 school for kindergarten through second grade, was similarly disappointed. "It's more the parent teaching them," she says.

In an April study (PDF), the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University reviewed the academic performance in Pennsylvania's charter schools. Virtual-school operators have been aggressively expanding in the state for more than a decade, making it a good place for a study; around 18,700 of the state's 61,770 charter school students were enrolled in online schools. The results weren't promising.

The virtual-school students started out with higher test scores than their counterparts in regular charters. But according to the study, they ended up with learning gains that were "significantly worse" than kids in traditional charters and public schools. Says CREDO research manager Devora Davis, "What we can say right now is that whatever they're doing in Pennsylvania is definitely not working and should not be replicated."

Bush's digital-learning advocacy is the natural extension of a crusade he began more than a decade ago, when he became a high-profile advocate for school vouchers. In 1999, he helped push through a Florida law that would provide students attending failing public schools with "opportunity scholarships," which could be used at private and religious schools. The courts repeatedly found the voucher program unconstitutional and finally killed it off in 2006, shortly before Bush left office. Soon after, Bush's former chief of staff and the head of his foundation, Patricia Levesque, led an attempt to eliminate the legal obstacles to vouchers by way of ballot initiatives. That, too, failed.

Virtual schools work very much like voucher systems. In most states, these schools receive per-student funding that would normally go to a student's home district. This can wreak havoc on public school budgets—which, to Bush and others working to privatize elements of the education system, may be exactly the point. In a December interview with Nick Gillespie, editor of the libertarian magazine Reason, Bush said he sees digital learning as "a transformative tool to disrupt the public education system, to make it more child-centered, more customized, more robust, more diverse, more exciting." He told National Review two months later that "the unions see [digital learning] as an even bigger threat than vouchers because it's such a disruptive idea."

Teachers and their unions are indeed concerned about the rise of digital schools, fearing that educators will be relegated to peripheral roles facilitating students' online work. It's already happening in Florida, where last year's budget cuts made it difficult for the schools to meet class-size rules (originally passed in 2002 over Bush's vehement objections). Unable to hire more teachers, some schools in the Miami-Dade district required students to take online classes at school, with only an aide to keep tabs on them.

As it stands, in many virtual schools, students rarely hear from their teachers. At the Insight School of Wisconsin, which was recently purchased by K12, students need only sign in to the school website and/or communicate with a teacher once every three days to prove they're actually attending. A state legislative audit found that 16 percent of the virtual teachers surveyed had contact with individual students as little as three times a month. At one point, K12 even outsourced paper-grading to a contractor in India.

Many online schools also have exceedingly high student-teacher ratios; teachers surveyed by the Wisconsin Legislature reported dealing with online classes of more than 100 kids. The Ohio Virtual Academy, run by K12, has one teacher for every 51 students.

Virtual educators are also often paid far less than their public school colleagues. The average teacher salary in Ohio is about $56,000; at ECOT, it's $34,000. In regular Ohio public schools, teacher salaries can make up 75 percent of the budget; at ECOT, teachers comprise just 17 percent of the school's budget. The figure is even lower at K12's Ohio Virtual Academy—11 percent.

While many virtual schools skimp on teacher pay, they spend considerable sums on something public schools don't: advertising. The Wisconsin audit discovered that one school, iQ Academy Wisconsin, dropped $424,700 on ads to drum up more business during the 2007-08 school year.

Despite all this—and despite online schools' track record of undercutting traditional Democratic constituencies—Bush has persuaded a fair number of Democrats to join his cause. Top on the list of converts is Bob Wise, the former West Virginia governor, who credits Bush for putting digital learning on the map. "The reality of the situation is that the only way we reach vast populations with high-quality education is with the effective application of technology," he says. Bennet Ratcliff, the former Clinton ad man now doing PR for Bush's online-learning campaign, says the former governor has latched on to a bipartisan issue with wide appeal: "It's not a big battle or argument when people get down to brass tacks."

And a bipartisan issue with wide appeal (and a pool of deep-pocketed donors) is exactly what a candidate-in-waiting needs as he bides his time. In the National Review's glowing cover story in February all but urging him to run for president, the American Enterprise Institute's Frederick Hess (a member of Bush's Digital Learning Council) noted, "Jeb Bush is a case study in how to stay relevant when you're out of office." In this area, anyway, Bush can provide a useful lesson.

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