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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Florida "reformers" use decoys, spread unions thin to shield their virtual schooling efforts, new report claims

From Tampabay.coms Gradebook

by Jeff Solochek

The Nation magazine has just published an investigative report, How Online Learning Companies Bought America's Schools, that is sure to get Florida's education and policy communities talking.

In it, the reporters describe Florida as ground zero for an assault by business entities seeking to take over public schooling. Patricia Levesque, who heads Jeb Bush's education foundation, plays a key role in the story, advising corporate leaders on how to win their battle by overwhelming the opposition with decoy legislation to allow the true mission to fly "under the radar."

"Despite the clear conflict of interest between her lobbying clients and her philanthropic goals, Levesque and her team have led a quiet but astonishing national transformation. Lobbyists like Levesque have made 2011 the year of virtual education reform, at last achieving sweeping legislative success by combining the financial firepower of their corporate clients with the seeming legitimacy of privatization-minded school-reform think tanks and foundations. Thanks to this synergistic pairing, policies designed to boost the bottom lines of education-technology companies are cast as mere attempts to improve education through technological enhancements, prompting little public debate or opposition. In addition to Florida, twelve states have expanded virtual school programs or online course requirements this year. This legislative juggernaut has coincided with a gold rush of investors clamoring to get a piece of the K-12 education market. It’s big business, and getting bigger: 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.

"In Florida, only fourteen months after Crist handed a major victory to teachers unions, a new governor, Rick Scott, signed a radical bill that could have the effect of replacing hundreds of teachers with computer avatars. Scott, a favorite of the Tea Party, appointed Levesque as one of his education advisers. His education law expanded the Florida Virtual School to grades K-5, authorized the spending of public funds on new for-profit virtual schools and created a requirement that all high school students take at least one online course before graduation."

Many of these same players popped up this week with a new $30 million charter school startup fund that they are backing, along with money from the state's Race to the Top grant. Visit the Gradebook this weekend for an interview with one of the leaders of the Florida-Charter School Growth Fund.

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