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DeVos Floats Online Education as Means to Provide Rural Students School Choice

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President-elect Donald Trump has signaled that school choice will be a major part of his education agenda—both by promising $20 billion to expand school choice and by nominating an influential school choice advocate and philanthropist, Betsy DeVos, as his education secretary.

But whatever form these policies may take, the fact remains that for many students in rural areas, there are simply not many—if any—schools to choose from.

What choices will they have? That question was posed by Senators Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska to DeVos during her confirmation hearing Tuesday night.

DeVos' answer: Online courses.

There are many new and growing opportunities in online education offered both through school districts and charter schools, part-time and full-time, or even as a blended learning model which seemlessly mixes virtual and face-to-face instruction into a school day. 

But one segment of the online education sector—which is supported by DeVos—has had significant issues over the years: full-time online charter schools.

Despite more than a decade of state investigations, news media reports, and research that have documented startling academic shortfalls and mismanagement in full-time online schools, they continue to expand into more states, due in part to sophisticated lobbying efforts on behalf of the companies that run the schools, according to a recent Education Week investigation.

Outsized Influence: Online Charter Schools Bring Lobbying 'A' Game to States

The majority of full-time online schools are charters and are run by for-profit management companies such as K12 Inc. and Connections Education. 

DeVos' financial ties to K12 Inc. was another point of questioning during her confirmation hearing when Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking member of the education committee, asked about DeVos' previous investments in the online school management company and whether DeVos has appropriately removed herself from such conflicts of interest.

DeVos said she has, and will continue to do so.

"Anything deemed to be a conflict will not be part of our investing," she said.

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Photo: Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos arrives with former Sen.  Joe Lieberman, right, before testifying Tuesday at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee —Carolyn Kaster/AP

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