The Business Behind Florida’s Internet Schools

As Florida embraces virtual schools, are online learning companies buying the education system?

Florida has been seen as an innovator in education reform, being one of the first states to undertake a program of “virtual schools where charters operated online, with teachers instructing students over the internet, writes Lee Fang at the Nation.

Lobbyists like Patricia Levesque, a top adviser to former Governor Jeb Bush, who runs a Tallahassee-based firm called Meridian Strategies LLC, which lobbies on behalf of a number of education-technology companies, have made 2011 the year of virtual education reform. As earlier reported at the Nation, these lobbyists have achieved sweeping legislative success by combining corporate financial firepower with the seeming legitimacy of privatization-minded school-reform think tanks and foundations.

Policies by these corporate-backed lobbyists are designed to boost the bottom lines of education-technology companies and improve education via technology, and because of this they come under little public debate or opposition.

There has been a gold rush of investors clamoring to get a piece of the K-12 education market with thirteen states, including Florida, have expanded virtual school programs or online course requirements this year.

One study estimated that revenues from the K-12 online learning industry will grow by 43 percent between 2010 and 2015, with revenues reaching $24.4 billion.

“I’ve never seen it like this in ten years,” said Ron Packard, CEO of virtual education powerhouse K12 Inc.

“It’s almost like someone flipped a switch overnight and so many states now are considering either allowing us to open private virtual schools.”

“This education issue, there’s not a bigger problem or bigger opportunity in my estimation,” said investment banker Michael Moe at the SkySong conference center this spring.

Moe, a veteran of Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch, is leading an investment group that specializes in raising money for businesses looking to tap into more than $1 trillion in taxpayer money spent annually on primary education.

And it’s popular. Moe’s first “Education Innovation Summit,” held last year, attracted about 370 people and fifty-five presenting companies. This year, his conference hosted more than 560 people and 100 companies.

Fang points out that there have been many factors that have made this year, in Moe’s words, an “inflection point” in the march toward public school privatization. Recession-induced fiscal crises and austerity have pressured states to cut spending. And, as in Florida, educating students could cost nearly $2,500 less than at traditional schools. An attractive proposition.

States like Idaho, Indiana and Florida have recently passed laws that are set to reshape the face of education in America forever. The shift of responsibility of teaching generations of Americans to online education businesses is happening.

Problem is, many of these businesses, so far, have poor or nonexistent track records.

The rush to privatize education will also turn tens of thousands of students into guinea pigs in a national experiment in virtual learning—a relatively new idea that allows for-profit companies to administer public schools completely online, with no brick-and-mortar classrooms or traditional teachers, writes Fang.

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