Michigan Cyber Schools — Here Be Dragons

QUESTION: What do securities fraud and public education have in common?

(HINT: You’re not going to like the answer.)

ANSWER: Michael Milken, junk bond dealer, ex-con — you know the guy.  He’s interested in educating our precious children. Or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say he is interested in profiting off the tax dollars we pay to educate our precious children.

Milken is a primary investor in K12 Inc. an online school, and a very profitable one at that. It is the leading cyber scheme in a growing market of for-profit “schools” preying on state legislatures through heavy lobbying to open up their coffers for corporate pillaging in the name of school choice.

K12 currently has 81,000 students in 27 states, including one school in Michigan, with more to come in the wake of looming legislation.  K12’s net profits in 2011 alone topped $21.5 million, while it’s CEO, Ron Packard, bagged a cool $5 million last year. That’s money going into the pockets of the rich at the expense of our children. Money that formerly went towards actual face-to-face education with real teachers earning on average 1% of Packard’s salary. 

It’s not difficult to imagine why these profiteers think this is a real sweet gig.  National estimates of pure profit in cyber schools range from $2,000 to $3,000 per child each year. Couple that with the fact that accountability in these corporate-owned schools is nearly non-existent, both in performance evaluation and in the disclosure of operating costs and profit margins.  In fact, we know very little about their budgets, but we do know a thing or two about their legally required student achievement measurements.

Dr. Michael Barbour, a recognized cyber school expert testified last month before the Michigan House Education Committee, and he was very clear in expressing his concerns about the deleterious effects of full-time cyber schooling. Barbour said “On average, there is a decrease in the percentage of students achieving proficiency the longer they are enrolled in full-time online learning.”  Cyber schools often make the claim that they enroll more students that lag academicaly as their excuse for lower scores, but it is apparent that online learning exacerbates the existing problem. Additionally cyber schools do not have the tools to address, one-on-one, individual learning deficiencies.

Barbour cites an extensive and disturbing survey of 10,500 students in Colorado where they found that cyber schools are so bad that they have three times as many drop-outs as they do actual graduates. The study focused on the top cyber schools, with Milken’s K12 Inc. being the largest. Only 27% of cyber students met Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

Cyber Schools are a virtual, pardon the pun, invitation for corruption. In Pennsylvania and Ohio, when lawmakers opened the door for cyber school expansion, both states experienced a flurry of court cases involving cyber school fraud. The schools where falsifying enrollment reports to receive funding for non-existent students– education tax dollars which went directly into the pockets of the same greedy millionaires that fund cyber school lobbyists and their political action committee, Digital Learning Now, headed by former governor Jeb Bush.

So Michigan, what dark ship sails on your horizon?

None other than Senate Bill 619, introduced by Senator Patrick Colbeck (R)….but probably actually ghost-written by ALEC, along with the think-tanks: Alliance for School Choice and Foundation for Excellence.

Piloted by the unseen hand of big money, this menacing vessel is poised to smoothly sail into the safe haven of Michigan Compiled Law in a matter of days.

Even the Michigan Legislative Analysis Committee had nothing rosy to say about the negative fiscal impact this would have on Michigan’s School Aid Fund. Based on studying when Pennsylvania and Wisconsin opened their doors to broad expansion of cyber schools their findings indicate that a majority of the droves of enrollees will be from home-schooled and private-schooled students — children who have not previously been state-funded.  And since the pending legislation allows for up to $7,110 state dollars to be syphoned off for each cyber enrollee, that will dilute the School Aid Fund to the point of pushing those districts that receive the lowest per student funding right over the precipice. In the last fiscal year, Michigan saw 48 schools operating at a deficit, and with their foundation grants being further eroded by the Snyder administration this year, public education in Michigan is bound to become very rough sailing.  Here be dragons.

Michigan’s State Education Superintendent, Michael Flanagan, has expressed concern about the speed this legislation is being ushered into law. He believes lawmakers should slow down and allow time for a careful evaluation of the data on cyber schools, but the politicians aren’t listening….at least not to him or to the people of Michigan.

Senator Patrick Colbeck, for your sponsorship of SB 619, you’re in The Dog House.

Amy Kerr Hardin






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3 Responses to Michigan Cyber Schools — Here Be Dragons

  1. Anne Srigley says:

    It’s just what our illustrious governor says. Education should be run like a business.
    How many of these individuals spent any time in the classroom?

  2. Garth Kriewall says:

    The arguments against cyber schools are legit in some (not all) cases. But this article misses the point: Online learning is coming, like it or not. Traditional schools as we’ve known and loved them won’t exist in quite the same way even a few years from now. The battle isn’t against online learning. That’s happening, regardless of legislation; the public demands it. The fight is to ensure its quality.

  3. Shalmanezer says:

    Seems like the lobbyists are the ones demanding it.
    But then the current legislative majority may not pass any bill unless they have a note signed by the secretary of the treasury.

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