This article was originally published in The Progressive.
Long before she became Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos was pushing online education.
Check out this statement from a 2013 interview:
“We are trying to tear down the mindset that assigns students to a school based solely on the zip code of their family’s home. We advocate instead for as much freedom as possible. One long-term trend that’s working in our favor is technology. It seems to me that, in the internet age, the tendency to equate “education” with “specific school buildings” is going to be greatly diminished.”
And, if you are hellbent on making education a profitable business, as many of DeVos’s allies are, moving education online eliminates the expense of a brick and mortar building, as well as cutting down on salaries for teachers and support staff. Instead of a teacher, there is a tutor, who might even be automated. Assessments of the student are done via software that gives rewards for student success.
Another strong supporter of online learning is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC has offered templates for legislation on public education that supports privatization at every level, via charter schools, increased testing, online learning, eliminating democratically elected school boards, and limiting the power of local school districts.
It’s learning on the cheap with no bothersome public oversight.
Dick and Betsy DeVos’ foundation The American Federation for Children (AFC) is a funder of ALEC. The group hired former Republican Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen as a lobbyist. In 2006 Jensen was convicted of three felonies and a misdemeanor stemming from abuse of his office. He is now an advisor to the Trump administration.
Jensen was on ALEC’s Education Task Force and proposed bills to ALEC on behalf of AFC that were adopted as “model” legislation for state legislatures. One proposal, the “Education Savings Account Act,” creates financial incentives for families to take their children out of public school and enroll them in for-profit charter schools. The AFC has also worked with ALEC to draft model legislation promoting “school choice.”
Michigan’s governor and “Skunk works”
Another fan of online learning is Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. In 2011, Snyder presented his “Any Time, Any Place, Any Way, Any Pace” plan. It creates a kind of “open-market” for students to be able to choose a school regardless of traditional district boundaries.
According to documents received through a Freedom of Information Act request by the group Progress Michigan, in 2013 Governor Rick Snyder’s chief information officer, David Behen, created a secret team tasked with developing a system of virtual schools, or cyber schools, using a state voucher program. The group included charter school owners and investors, personnel from information technology companies, several members of Snyder’s staff, and Tim Cook of the Huizenga Group (founded by Dick and Betsy Devos’s friend, J.C. Huizenga who owns National Heritage Academies). In the plan, these schools were referred to as “value schools.” I refer to them as McD Happy Meal schools.
The group titled the project “Skunk works,” referring to a secret World War II collaboration between the U.S. military and the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, and used now to refer to projects with little official—and no public—oversight.
The Skunk works plan included a pilot school where all students would do their lessons on a computer and be tested using software to evaluate their academic growth as well as their emotional state. The document refers to accumulating information on a student’s mental and emotional state as “brain science.”
In the document, the term “P-20” describes tracking public school students from pre-school to the age of twenty, keeping a record of their academic performance and also using software to monitor children’s social and emotional development. (The report uses the term “social and emotional learning.”
According to the Skunk works “Transformation” plan, these virtual schools will “require no seat time because advancement will be achieved by demonstrating competency” using a computer. The group declares that it will “produce ‘work ready’ graduates that match talent and skills with real business needs,” basically plugging students into jobs like cogs into the corporate wheel.
When word got out about this project, Governor Snyder initially denied knowing about the group or the plan that was developed in secret.The plan was officially dropped after a public backlash and threats of a lawsuit by the Michigan ACLU.
A trial in Oakland
The idea of “anytime, anywhere” online learning has been developed to its fullest extent in Oakland, California thanks to John Krull, former chief information officer for Oakland Public Schools and now the chief information officer in Seattle. The concern with Seattle is one of the goals stated in the Strategic Plan for Seattle Public Schools is to “improve technology infrastructure at schools to support web-based blended learning and computer based assessment.” This opens the door to a program similar to the one developed in Oakland.
The Oakland Public School superintendent at the time, Antwan Wilson, who was a graduate of the unaccredited Broad Academy for superintendents in 2014, also spent those same two years in Oakland from 2014 through 2016 before moving to Washington DC to be the chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools.
Krull spent two years with Oakland Public Schools developing a Technology Plan, which includes providing every student a Chromebook loaded with Common Core lessons and testing software for the related Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium test. The software is provided by Pearson, with the direction, “with Google Apps, students can easily access their work and files from anywhere, on any device, at any time.” The startup cost to the district for technical upgrades and the Chromebooks is in the millions of dollars and the school district now finds itself in financial trouble again.
When you spend this kind of money for laptops and IT upgrades, there is no money left for additional teachers or much needed school staff—but maybe that’s the point.
The distribution of laptops has not ended well in other districts, and I project it will not have a happy ending in Oakland.
There is also the issue of private student information being tracked and recorded automatically when students use school laptops—information that is very valuable to marketers. Parents have not been provided with information on what is being tracked nor given the opportunity to opt their children out of unwittingly sharing information with a third party.
Given Betsy DeVos’ enthusiasm for online learning, and her active work to promote it through ALEC, and her partnership with Rick Snyder and others in Michigan, we should be ready for her to promote this idea for the nation’s schools. We will see how things turn out in Oakland. We will also keep an eye on Seattle as well.