Researchers Push Back As Betsy DeVos, ALEC Advance Virtual School Expansion

Policy and Government

Researchers Push Back As Betsy DeVos, ALEC Advance Virtual School Expansion

By Jenny Abamu     Jul 18, 2017

Researchers Push Back As Betsy DeVos, ALEC Advance Virtual School Expansion
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos could have lines out the door for her upcoming appearance at the American Legislative Exchange Council's (ALEC) annual meeting—but not for reasons she may like. In preparation for the gathering in Denver, Colo., a stream of protesters are getting ready to object her ties with ALEC, a conservative organization with plans to grow the virtual school industry.

In addition to health, criminal justice, agriculture and several other fields, ALEC works with legislators, nonprofits and corporations to introduce legislation that affects education. The expansion of virtual schools has been one of the group’s primary goals for education. Their work has already been picked up at the state level: Representatives from Tennessee to Alabama have introduced ALEC-backed virtual school legislation in their states closely modeling after policy blueprints listed on ALEC’s website.

In an EdSurge interview, ALEC’s Director of Education and Workforce Development Task Force, Inez Stepman, explained that the organization doesn’t support the expansion of edtech, but they do support more choice and education individualization—a vision they say DeVos aligns with.

“Virtual schooling and digital learning, in general, fit into our broader vision of where we would really like to see the education system go,” says Stepman. “Technology is just a piece of a much more broad effort to individualize the education system and create more pathways for students and their unique needs. It is a part of the larger opening up of the system to choice.”

Stepman’s description of ALEC’s vision for education is expansive. She sees parents using education savings accounts (an individual account loaded with a portion of funding allocated by the state for education) not just as vouchers for schools, but as a way to fully customize the learning experience—using the accounts on everything from tutors to digital classes. The savings account program, first enacted in Arizona, is only available in four other Republican-led states including Nevada, Tennessee, Mississippi and Florida.

When it comes to assessment in the virtual schools ALEC is championing reform, Stepman says, “We want a portfolio of skills that kids master rather than [measuring if a student] has put their butt in a seat for X number of days…That type of system requires adaptive technology.”

Stepman notes that this support for more school choice and state leadership in education (as opposed to federal steering) is something that ALEC and DeVos are aligned on.

ALEC and DeVos are also aligned with for-profit organizations such as K12 Inc., a virtual education company DeVos divested from in 2008 before her confirmation as Education Secretary, and whose Vice President of Government Affairs, Don Lee, is on ALEC’s board of advisors.

During DeVos’ confirmation hearing back in January, she was dinged by Columbia University professor Aaron Pallas for citing misleading graduation rates quoted from the K12 Inc. while making her case for virtual school expansion.

In addition to the Columbia professor, other academics have also offered heavy critiques of virtual schools. Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University, in concert with nine other university academics, published the Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2017 report through the National Education Policy Center earlier this year. Their report found that virtual schools were on average overcrowded with high student-teacher ratios (34 students per teacher as compared to traditional schools 16 students per teacher) and graduation rates at an average of 43 percent fell far short of the national 82 percent average. It also called for more legal regulations for virtual schools to avoid the problematic outcomes they cite at schools such as K12 Inc.

Miron notes that the modular model of virtual corporate schools such as K12 Inc. require parents to serve as teachers, while certified teachers serve more as support resources—contacting students as little as once a week through email to check on them.

He points to legislation in DeVos’ home state of Michigan where the Department of Education’s Pupil Accounting Manual of 2015-16 only requires teachers, or “mentors,” to touch base with students once a week. That correspondence can be anything from a face-to-face conversation, to a phone call or even an email. Miron says even for his graduate-level students, simply emailing students once a week is not enough. For K-12 virtual schools, where classes can be as large a 90 students to one teacher, he believes this kind of contact can’t be much better.

“My university says we can only have a maximum of 18 students for an online class because they know if you are doing online courses you need even more support from the teacher,” says Miron in an interview with EdSurge. “We go to K-12, and kids really need support. We see so many states that are not regulating, so what will for-profit companies do? They maximize profit.”

In Miron’s report, his team calls on state representatives to slow down or stop the growth of virtual schools until student performance issues have been identified and improved. They also recommend legislatures specify a maximum student-teacher ratio, issue sanctions against poor performing virtual schools, and provide funding for researchers to look into policy options and special education performance in virtual schools, in addition to other regulations.

Miron says he hopes these regulations improve the virtual education system, noting that his team is not against virtual schooling as many of them teach virtual courses and agree that it is the model of the future.

“Betsy DeVos is going to push and advocate for virtual schools, and that is why it is hard in this policy environment to get any common sense oversight mechanism to make virtual schools work,” says Miron. “There are regulatory bills being introduced by Republicans. But if the bill is restrictive in nature, they don’t often make it out of committee. They go nowhere.”

When pressed on the question of oversight in addition to legislation calling for growth, Stepman says she is aware of the criticism but believes in the free market.

“I think choices suggest accountability because parents can withdraw their kids,” says Stepman. “Actual accountability is you withdrawing your funds if something isn’t working for you.”

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