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The Stealth Campaign to Privatize Education

You'd think that privateers would turn to their heavy guns now that anger and frustration about school reform seemingly have reached a crescendo. But they've learned that a head-on approach can backfire after voters handily defeated vouchers or their variants in state after state between 1967 and 2007. As a result, they've decided instead to take more incremental steps. I'm talking now about the use of educational technology.

An investigative report published in The Nation on Nov. 16 details how Florida has become ground zero for this approach ("How Online Learning Companies Bought America's Schools"). Patricia Levesque, adviser to former Governor Jeb Bush and now head of Meridian Strategies LLC, a Tallahassee-based lobbying company, is illustrative of the practice.

Despite no independent evidence that students learn more effectively through the use of technology than through traditional pedagogy, Levesque has managed to convince the Legislature otherwise, in the process boosting the profits of her educational technology clients. The result has been to pave the way for private virtual schools. Strangely, the move has prompted little public debate or opposition.

I have no objection to innovation, provided it is not innovation for its own sake. But what is happening under the guise of putting children first is a thinly veiled attempt to privatize all public schools. Florida is not alone. Pennsylvania and Indiana are also in the vanguard, even though the evidence is far from convincing. In fact, a recent study of virtual schools in Pennsylvania by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that students in online schools performed significantly worse than students in traditional schools. Even more damning, a study from the University of Colorado in Dec. 2010 found that only 30 percent of virtual schools run by for-profit organizations met the minimum progress standard under No Child Left Behind, compared with 54.9 percent of traditional schools.

If the $2.2 billion spent on software for schools in 2010 produced anything near the outcomes that supporters claim, I would be far more receptive. But the evidence is not there. The Kyrene School District in Arizona is a case in point. Its classrooms feature laptops, interactive screens and the latest software. Since a ballot initiative was approved in 2005, the district has invested $33 million in these technologies. But according to The New York Times, reading and math scores since then have actually stagnated, even as statewide scores have risen ("In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores," Sept. 3, 2011).

This blind faith in technology is extremely troubling at a time when the demand is for decisions that are evidence-based. But when the money to be made is so great, companies will not be deterred from lavishly spending on wooing legislators with their fairy tales. At some point even the most skeptical among them caves in. When that happens, another step is taken along the road to privatization.

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