The Privatization Pandemic

In recent days, I’ve reported on virtual vultures seeking to profit off of the crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Reports have indicated that both Pearson (Tennessee Connections Academy) and K12, Inc. (Tennessee Virtual Academy) are seeking to extend their money grabs by offering their wares as a “solution” for public schools. Now, a report from the Koch Family Foundation-funded Mercatus Center further illuminates this very real privatization plan.

Instead of attempting to create new virtual platforms, school districts and physical charter schools should create public-private partnerships with virtual learning providers. Some private providers are prepared for this arrangement. K12 Inc. and Connections Academy, two of the nation’s largest K-12 online learning companies, have already created resources to assist districts. K12 Inc. has offered district school students access to the company’s online curriculum, while Connections has posted videos online and scheduled webinars to help traditional classroom teachers adapt instruction.

At least one public virtual school has also announced that it can expand its services. The nation’s largest state-based virtual school, the Florida Virtual School, is offering training for state teachers.8 VirtualSC, South Carolina’s online school, is providing similar services.9 According to local media, Florida Virtual School is prepared to increase its capacity to 400,000 students. If demand continues, the school is considering assigning students to certain times of the day to access content, staggering instruction so that servers are not overloaded.

So, go virtual and give private providers more cash with less oversight. We’ve seen how that worked out in Tennessee’s unfortunate embrace of K12, Inc.:

Take, for example, Tennessee, where K12 Inc. has spent between half a million and $1.1 million hiring lobbyists over several years. One of them was chief of staff to former Tennessee governor and current U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who is the chairman of the education committee in the Senate.

The state passed a virtual school law in 2011 that mirrored model legislation written by The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, an influential conservative think tank. A few schools opened up, including one run by K12 Inc. through a poor, rural school district in the northeastern part of the state.

Since then, K12’s Tennessee Virtual Academy, whose enrollment at one point ballooned to nearly 2,000 students, has been one of the worst-performing schools in the state ever since, but has so far managed to avoid being shut down.

Privatizers want to turn more of our money — and our kids — over to shady operators like K12, Inc. Also, they want ALL the money. Here’s more from Mercatus on “repurposing” current school budgets to direct additional funds to the privatizing predators:

Lawmakers should also allow districts to repurpose taxpayer resources meant for bus routes, food service, and facility maintenance, to name a few, and use this spending to purchase education services from online providers

But what about those pesky IDEA requirements that protect students with disabilities? Well, Mercatus and the privatizers agree with Tennessee’s own Lamar Alexander that “flexibility” should be offered in this regard. Here, flexibility means students with disabilities lose so for-profit prowlers can win:

While this fact sheet already offered school leaders “discretion” and “significant latitude,” the department appears to have erased any uncertainty on March 21 with another memo that said schools should not fear reprisal for good-faith efforts to move classes online, even for children with special needs. The department said, “To be clear: ensuring compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.”

The privatizers want ALL the money, all the students, and none of the accountability. It’s not a secret. They are saying (and writing) it out loud.

Will Tennessee’s policymakers stand up to the virtual vultures?

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

Originally published at http://tnedreport.com on April 23, 2020.

Writer and policy advocate living in Nashville, TN

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