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

A bill would make Minnesota one of a handful of states to mandate student participation in online learning, a booming industry in search of customers.

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.

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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.

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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.