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ALEC and corporate fingerprints are all over national push for online learning

A proposed law would require all Minnesota high school students to take at least one online class before graduating.

Last week, this space carried a post recapping the strange brew of education-related measures that had survived their respective legislative committees and were headed to the floors of the state Senate and House. There is much more to be said about one of the more curious measures, House File 2127, sponsored by Burnsville Republican Pam Myhra.

A short refresher: The bill would require all Minnesota students, starting four years from now, to have taken at least one online-only course in order to graduate from high school. As first introduced, it would have allowed those courses to take place in virtual classrooms to be located anywhere and be operated by employees of for-profit companies who might or might not be licensed teachers.

As it moved through various committees, HF 2127 was amended to require all courses be taught by licensed Minnesota educators, offered by approved operators and include digital coursework done in schools. It was massaged into something Minnesota’s larger districts, most of which already offer digital courses, are now OK with, although it will pose myriad challenges in Greater Minnesota.

If it passes, Minnesota will become one of a handful of states to mandate student participation in online learning, which is, to put it mildly, a booming industry in search of customers.

Consider, for example, Tennessee’s adoption last year of the Virtual Public Schools Act, model legislation created by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the super-secretive, super-conservative group which has birthed much of the nearly identical anti-labor legislation that has swept through statehouses nation-wide over the last two years.

Yes, ALEC has made appearances in this space, too, but we think the best primer is the one produced by the education advocacy group Parents United. Corporations, foundations and think tanks pay thousands of dollars to join ALEC, which charges lawmakers — most of them Republicans — $50 a year to join.

Lawmakers are treated to expenses-paid policy confabs at ritzy resort destinations where they are given model bills drafted by private-sector participants.

The model law adopted in Tennessee was created by two ALEC committees chaired by executives from two large, for-profit corporate providers of virtual education, Connections Academy and K-12, according to Phi Delta Kappan, via Education Week.

Shortly after passage, K-12 won a no-bid contract from Union County School District to open a school that is in operation this year. Tennessee lawmakers also decided to shutter the state’s successful online education program.

Some 2,000 students applied for admission to the Tennessee Virtual Academy last fall, many of them homeschoolers. Others were recruited at meetings held in Chattanooga’s poorest neighborhoods. The school receives about $5,300 per pupil; K-12’s CEO was paid more than $2.6 million last year and its CFO $1.7 million.

There’s more. According to The New York Times, K-12 was founded by a former banker from Goldman Sachs and pundit William Bennett, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education and the author of “The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories” and bankrolled by disgraced junk bond king Mike Milken.

How, you are wondering, does K-12 do, for about $5,000 a head in Tennessee what Minnesota’s urban districts struggle to do with more than twice that tuition? One of its Arizona programs outsourced the correcting of student essays to India, a practice that apparently didn’t work well and was abandoned.

ALEC is at work on those cost-cutting measures, drafting model bills aimed at collective bargaining, teacher compensation, licensure, local school boards, vouchers, tax credits and a host of other “reforms” that incorporate privatization.

Last fall, Rep. Myhra confirmed to the late, lamented Minnesota Independent that she is an ALEC member. Indeed, she sits on its tax and fiscal policy task force.

K-12, meanwhile, operates four virtual public schools in Minnesota. Connections Academy operates one here.

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/26/2012 - 09:52 am.

    Schools of greed

    Sigh. The assault on democracy continues from the moneyed interests on the right.

    Privatization is the antithesis of democratization, and by its vary nature is both economically segregationist and inclined toward indoctrination rather than education. The public school is one of the very few remaining institutions in the country that reinforces the democratic principles written into those same founding documents that those on the right profess to revere. A private school, by its inherent nature, does not.

    Private interests like K-12 can make money – that is their goal, by the way, with education a purely secondary concern – by, in effect, having families provide the infrastructure that normally comes with a public school. The family provides the computer, the materials, and the online access, none of which is free, and little of which is readily available to my neighbors of limited means (See Steve Dornfeld’s article on today’s MinnPost about “Affordable Housing”). If you’re spending half your after-tax income on housing, plus trying to feed and clothe a family, on a couple of low-wage jobs, there won’t be much left over for that new computer, or the necessary software, or the web connection. The computer will be obsolete in 3 years, the software in a year, and the web connection has to be renewed more or less constantly. None of that fits realistically into the budget of those in the lower third (or more) of the economy.

    The alternative is not an improvement. A private firm that provides “free” computer and software and web access has to make up that fiscal outlay from some other source, whether it’s subsidized by corporate interests with an agenda they want taught (typically given the benign-sounding label of “grant”), or by charging enough in “tuition” to offset their hardware and software investment. There ain’t no free lunch, kids.

    While there are certainly situations where online education fills a need, it’s essentially a convenience for many, while remaining essentially out of reach for many more.

    The public school is paid for by all, and is available to all.

    Horace Mann wrote at length about access to education, though in his usual ponderous 19th-century language, in his “10th Annual Report” to the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1846. His essential point(s): Education of the succeeding generation is the duty of every citizen. Failure to do so for *all* children is not only egregiously unfair, and detrimental to the society at large, it’s immoral by any standard. The Minnesota Constitution repeats that philosophical argument quite clearly, and makes it the duty of the legislature to provide such education to every child – a responsibility I’ve yet to see a Minnesota legislature carry out in my 3 years here. Privatized education may provide some lessons in terms of structure, organization, fiscal efficiency,or instructional techniques, but philosophically, privatized education works against an equitable society.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/26/2012 - 11:12 am.

    This bill’s unnecessary

    There’s no need to mandate student participation in online learning. If their school isn’t stuck in the 20th century they will evolve to that model naturally and don’t need government to force them to do anything.

    The cost of brick and mortar and fossil-fuel transportation is money that could be spent on actual instruction and everyone but those tied to an antiquated labor model realize it.

    • Submitted by Robert Gauthier on 03/26/2012 - 06:02 pm.


      The only reasons ALEC and the Republicans want to after education is like their approach to all government- push the teachers aside and exclude them from the trough. ALEC is about getting government money, nothing more.

  3. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 03/26/2012 - 12:40 pm.

    Overlegislate much?

    So, what is the purpose of requiring anyone to take an online class? Oh yeah, to make for-profit “schools” money. Considering that for-profit colleges are failing to train students that anyone wants to hire (13% of college students, but 25% of federal money for students, and a default rate of at least double that of non-profits, with higher and longer unemployment after graduation), it would not seem that we have a successful model for effective for-profit school-based education. Clearly, it seems like this is purely profit-driven and teacher-bashing.

    Even if we could legislate that any online classes be from licensed teachers at the best of the best educational institutions, why would we legislate the requirement for kids to have an online class at all? What is the supposed benefit for the kids?

    This is NOT “for the kids.”

  4. Submitted by Jerilyn Jackson on 03/26/2012 - 12:57 pm.


    Thank you for this report. It’s amazing that there is so little information in the media about the activities of ALEC and its shadowy collaboration with our elected representatives. The public needs help in keeping tabs on the onslaught of legislation which allows corporate ambition to take precedence over the common good of American citizens.

  5. Submitted by Bruce Johnson on 03/26/2012 - 01:43 pm.

    Re: “super-secretive, super-conservative”. ALEC is corporatist and by extension Republican, but not conservative. If there were any significant number of conservatives in the Republican party anymore there would be an open and loud Republican critique of the intent and the secrecy of some of the specific ALEC initiatives being pushed in MN, if not of the entire organization and its members.

  6. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 03/26/2012 - 02:31 pm.

    Another great, and well cited article about K12 online

    I would recommend the following article to all the readers and Ms. Hawkins. It has several well cited studies about online schools.

    Also, everyone should remember that A.L.E.C also wrote the shoot first laws that made the murder in Floria perfectly legal.

  7. Submitted by Nancy B on 03/26/2012 - 09:07 pm.

    I really have to wonder

    if the Republican legislators are able to write any bills on their own. If all they’re capable of doing is obeying marching orders from ALEC then I think it’s time ALEC start paying their salaries.

  8. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/26/2012 - 09:31 pm.


    “More than 30 years ago, a small group of state legislators and conservative policy advocates met in Chicago to implement a vision: A nonpartisan membership association for conservative state lawmakers who shared a common belief in limited government, free markets, federalism, and individual liberty.”

    Oh no! I can see why you people are so exercised.

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 03/27/2012 - 09:13 am.

      Rightfully so

      Voters expect legislators to represent them, not the Koch brothers and other out of state right wingers. Perhaps, we need to have a new requirement for MN legislators. The proven ability to write a proposed bill for themselves. If you like the Alec bills, move to Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana.

  9. Submitted by Pete Barrett on 03/26/2012 - 09:35 pm.

    Tell Me What Homeschooling Looks Like

    Enrolling in an on-line or virtual school is NOT homeschooling. The article should say that former homeschoolers enrolled under the program in Tennessee. Once enrolled in an on-line school you are either a public or private school student.

  10. Submitted by Jane McWilliams on 03/26/2012 - 10:03 pm.

    ALEC influence

    Is anyone at Minnpost looking into what other ALEC initiatives have been introduced here in Minnesota?

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/27/2012 - 08:23 am.

      While you’re at it

      check out how much the AFL-CIO, Education Minnesota, the Indian tribes, and the Minnesota State Bar Association have influenced legislation here in Minnesota.

  11. Submitted by Joe Musich on 03/27/2012 - 07:19 am.

    foresight is is rendered visionless.

    Okay !

    So now are we going to have even more initiatives to provide education for those who chhoose it ? With all these independent crusades popping up all over the place it seems that all efforts will be diluted disfussed and diabled leadering to zero success for more and lots of money for some. Where is the coordination the collaboration the communication and with all this new efforts the corroboration ? Off we go into the the dark night with an new initiative to nowhere simply because money and power says so. We are the Hunger Games.

  12. Submitted by mark wallek on 05/19/2012 - 02:53 pm.

    Online learning can only be suplementary at the very best.

    It’s all about creating educational “products” that can be purchased, yielding profit, which is what it is always all about. Whatever “educational product” is offered, it will be garbage compared to a live teacher/student relationship. But ever since commiting our nation to live and act along corporate lines, cost effectiveness has crept into all areas of human life, and the hunt for profits knows no manners or boundaries. It is no wonder that greedy profit meisters are hawking the snake oil benefits of their “educational” products. For them there’s profit to be had. For students, there’s mediocrity (if they’re lucky) served up as exceptional. All praise to the Marketing Machine.

  13. Submitted by Neil Wilston on 01/06/2014 - 01:11 am.


    Great Article on online learning.

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