June Girard : For-profit virtual schools a bad deal for kids

Published: Monday, January 2, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 28, 2011 at 11:01 p.m.

Gov. Rick Scott’s movement to “reform” public education is a laboratory experiment for the rest of the nation.

Scott’s proposals of vouchers, charters, privatization and “virtual” schools,” as well as vouchers to channel taxpayer money to charter schools run by “for-profits,” were among the first in the nation.

All this sounds like he really cares about education, despite his lack of appreciation for anthropology, but that is not what is going on.

What is going on is that Gov. Scott would like to privatize education and take its funding out of the state budget.

In Florida, the push to educate students at the Florida Virtual School at a savings of nearly $2,500 per student less than at traditional schools has been sold as a budget fix. These schools have poor or nonexistent track records.

The rush to privatize education allows for-profit companies to administer public schools completely online with no classroom buildings or traditional teachers. And this opens the door for education industry lobbyists to achieve an unprecedented investment in for-profit education.

Lobbyists made 2011 the year of virtual education reform, achieving sweeping legislative success by combining the financial power of corporate clients with the apparent legitimacy of privatization minded think tanks and foundations. This is sold as mere attempts to improve education through technological enhancements prompting little public debate or opposition.

Scott signed a radical bill last year that could have the effect of replacing hundreds of teachers with computer avatars. A favorite of the tea party, Scott’s 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.

Most recently he has made a big push to increase lottery funds with an eye to replacing state funding entirely. As you might remember the lottery was supposed to be an addition to state funds, not the only funds for education.

Investment banker Michael Moe opened a conference in April of education startup companies and venture capitalists. A press packet cited reports that rapid changes in education could unlock “immense potential for entrepreneurs.”

After a series of defeats in the state legislature, a top advisor to Jeb Bush noted in 2010 that reform efforts had failed because the opposition had time to organize. In 2011, it was suggested, proponents of these reforms should use decoy legislation, like proposing a series of statewide reforms, new graduation requirements, relying on lottery money to replace the state’s responsibility for education or like proposing taxpayer dollars go to religious schools, and all this is actually meant to keep opponents busy on these fronts.

Needling the labor unions with several bills might very well allow certain privatization charter bills to fly “under the radar.”

I think it is time for a state dialogue on the future of education based on what is good for kids, not what’s good for business.

June Girard lives in Gainesville.

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