Tag Archives: cyber charters

Pearson Embraces a Digital Knock-Off of Authentic Education

6 Jun

By T. Ultican 7/6/2019

The world’s largest publishing company is betting on cyber education. Great Britain’s Pearson Corporation took a financial beating when common core state testing did not turn into a planned for cash cow and concurrently the market for text books slowed. With its world-wide reach, Pearson’s new play is for digital education to open up global markets. The corporation envisions creating life-long relationships with its customers to provide virtual schooling, professional certifications, assessments, and other services.

In April, Education International Research published “Pearson 2025 Transforming teaching and privatising education data.” Authors Sam Sellar and Anna Hogan report,

“Pearson aims to lead the ‘next generation’ of teaching and learning by developing digital learning platforms, including Artificial Intelligence in education (AIEd). It is piloting new AI technologies that it hopes will enable virtual tutors to provide personalised learning to students, much like Siri or Alexa. This technology will be integrated into a single platform—Pearson Realize™—that has now been integrated with Google Classroom.”

“… [I]ts corporate strategy is premised upon creating disruptive changes to (a) the teaching profession, (b) the delivery of curriculum and assessment and (c) the function of schools, particularly public schooling. These disruptions do not follow a coherent set of educational principles, but capriciously serve the interests of the company’s shareholders.

Two main concerns accompany Person’s new agenda. (1) The privatization of data and infrastructure will turn the commons into private assets. (2) Diminishing the teaching profession will transform education from its broad purposes such as social development and creative thinking into a focus on individual knowledge and skills. And looming over the entire enterprise is the risk of data breach which is sure to occur. Sellar and Hogan note that securing data “can be difficult, if not impossible to achieve, even with the help of advanced privacy preservation techniques.

Pearson currently has a presence in 60 counties. One of their clients is Bridge International for which they provide digital services and scripted lessons for low cost privatized education in Africa. In Diane Ravitch’s new Book The Wisdom and Wit of Diane Ravitch, she notes this is the company whose founders claimed it had the potential to become a billion dollar company selling school for between $46 and $126 dollars per year to poor families. Besides Pearson, “the investors include Bill Gates, the Omidyar Network, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the World Bank.

Sellar and Hogan note, “At the 2018 AGM [Annual General Meeting], Pearson announced a £750 million investment in new technologies and platforms to provide new digital services, which it claims will provide educators with real-time data and “smart” assessments for their students, blended learning models that partner with existing educational institutions, and new kinds of educational programming.

In the United States, Pearson is concentrating on expanding their virtual charter school business. Mercedes Schneider reported on Pearson’s February 2019 earnings call. She wrote,

“Pearson is focused on expanding its Connections Academy market. Pearson is undergoing restructuring; it has (and continues to) reduce its workforce and has been selling off less-profitable companies in an effort to recover from unrealized profits, including those Pearson expected from Common Core (CC) and CC-related PARCC testing.”

Pearson Call 4

Connections Academy Slide Pearson Presented at the 2019 Earning Call

Virtual Schools Bring Low Costs and Poor Academics

May 28th, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado released its annual report on virtual schools. The report was written by Alex Molnar, Gary Miron, Najat Elgeberi, Michael K. Barbour, Luis Huerta, Sheryl Rankin Shafer, and Jennifer King Rice. In the report introduction they state,

“Many argue that online curriculum can be tailored to individual students more effectively than curriculum in traditional classrooms, giving it the potential to promote greater student achievement than can be realized in traditional brick-and-mortar schools. These claims are not supported by the research evidence; nonetheless, the promise of lower costs—primarily for instructional personnel and facilities—continues to make virtual schools financially appealing to both policymakers and for-profit providers.”

In the 2017-18 school year, nearly 300,000 students were enrolled across 501 full-time virtual schools. Poor academic performance and terrible graduation rates were a consistent characteristic of these schools. The authors recommended, “Slow or stop the growth in the number of virtual and blended schools and the size of their enrollments until the reasons for their relatively poor performance have been identified and addressed.”

Emily Tate interviewed one of the report authors – Michael K. Barbour an NEPC Fellow – for her edsurge.com article, “Despite Poor Performance, Virtual School Enrollment Continues to Grow”. Tate wrote,

“But even as the sector grows, one thing remains constant, Barbour says: ‘Students in these programs—both full-time online programs and blended schools—tend not to do as well as their brick-and-mortar counterparts.’

“He adds: ‘There’s not really a rationale for the growth, based on performance.’”

In an April EdWeek article, Arianna Prothero and Alex Harwin reported, “Nationally, half of all virtual charter high schools had graduation rates below 50 percent in the 2016-17 school year.” They also shared, “The most high-profile study, done by economists at Stanford University in 2015, found that students attending an online charter school made so little progress in math over the course of a year that it was as if they hadn’t attended school at all.”

Prothero and Harwin’s article contains an interactive chart showing which cyber schools in each state did or did not achieve a 50% graduation rate over the past four years. “Out of the 163 schools, in some states, such as Indiana, not a single virtual charter school operating in 2016-17 had a graduation rate over 50 percent in the past four years.

If cyber schools have such poor academic outcomes, what explains parents putting their children in them? One clue can be found in a 2001 interview with Dick and Betsy DeVos at the Gathering, a group that Jay Michaelson describes as the “hub of Christian Right organizing.” Betsy said, “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education…Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.” Dick lamented the fact that schools have displaced churches as the center of community activities. He then mentions that Bill Bennett is involved in something that could be quite helpful. He says Bennett’s new K12 Inc. cyber schools although not Christian could be a great help to Evangelical homeschoolers.

California Connections Academy

Map of California Connections Academy Structure

This Little Sis Map Shows the Structure of California Connections Academy in 2017

On September 18, 2018 a Mercury News lead read, “California has just kicked for-profit management companies out of the charter school business.” However, the new law is quite flawed. A for-profit company can create a non-profit to run the schools and then the non-profit in turn hires the for-profit management company to provide operating services and materials.

In 2011, Pearson Corporation purchased the cyber charter school company Connections Academy for $400,000,000. At the time Pearson said that this purchase gave them a leading position in the emerging cyber education arena.

Fortunately for Pearson, in California the Connections Academy cyber business was being run by the three non-profits shown in blue on the map. All three of the non-profits provide a similar explanation of their structure to this one in Capistrano Connections Academy’s 2016 form 990:

“Capistrano Connections Academy has a shared services agreement in place which includes the sharing of school staff and various other expenses between a network of charter schools. This agreement involves three non-profit public benefit corporations Capistrano Connections Academy, Alpaugh Academies, and friends of California Virtual Education. The school has also contracted with a third-party organization (Connections Academy of California, LLC a subsidiary of Connections Education, LLC) to provide educational products and services to the school. Due to delays in the receipts of state funding the school has arranged with Connections Education to process its payroll including the paying of school staff which requires the use of Connections Education, LLC’s EIN number. As part of this arrangement, the school reimburses connections education for paying staff as funding becomes available. As all staff members are reported on the school’s behalf using the EIN of Connections Education, LLC, no employees are listed as part of this return.”

There is some confusion in this statement. For example, Alpaugh Academies is also referred to as California on Line Public Schools (CalOps) and on December 18, 2017, Connections Academy of California, LLC submitted a termination statement to the California Secretary of State. It appears the Baltimore based Connections Education, LLC is now paying the bills and collecting the service fees through its Minnesota office. Also, there are two employees listed on the three non-profit tax form 990’s (Capistrano, CalOps and Friends). Director of Business Services, Franci Sassin receives more than $143,000 yearly and Executive Director, Richard Savage receives more than $225,000 yearly in total from the three non-profits.

There are four Connections Academy schools shown on the Little Sis map in yellow. In addition, a fifth school, California Connections Academy Central Coast is listed by the state as pending opening September 3, 2019. That must be one of the “strong pipeline of 2-5 new schools in 2019” Pearson referenced in their earnings call.

Locally we have been buzzing over the San Diego Union report, “Two charter school leaders illegally pocketed more than $50 million of state funds by siphoning the money through a network of 19 online charter schools across California which falsely enrolled thousands of students, prosecutors alleged Wednesday.” One of the issues cited in this scam was that little 145-student Dehesa School District in the mountains east of San Diego authorized 3 of these-cyber charters all outside of their district boundaries.

The Connections Academy model is not that different. According the 2018-2019 Connections Academy School Profile, “Capistrano Connections Academy is an accredited, virtual public charter school serving students in grades K–12 in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties.” However, Capistrano Connections Academy is only authorized by one school district, Capistrano Unified. The other three schools have a similar territory outside of their authorizer’s district.

Table 1: Connections Academy Enrollment by Grade

Connections Academy Enrollment

What kind of education are those more than 1,000 students in the primary grades receiving? They certainly are not being socialized with other community members and it is well known that too much screen time is unhealthy for children.

Table 2: Connections Academy Graduation and ELL Rates Compared to the State

Connections Academy Graduation and EL

Sadly, these Connections Academy graduation rates are good compared to their peers in the cyber school industry. However, they are not acceptable as an education policy. In California, English language learners (ELL) are 19.3% of the enrollment which is by far the largest ELL percentage in the nation. As is typical of cyber schools the ELL percentage at Connections Academy is only 3.6%.

In an Education Week investigation of cyber schools, Benjamin Herold called it a “Broken Model” and summed it up this way,

“The schools are based on an educational model that doesn’t work for most kids. Many cyber operators have cashed in anyway, expanding aggressively, often with the help of their boards. Rather than pump the brakes, cyber authorizers have frequently gone along for the ride. And state lawmakers have repeatedly looked the other way, usually at the urging of lobbyists who fight tooth and nail against even modest attempts to improve oversight or limit growth.”

Some Conclusions

Pearson Corporation is an amoral entity that is not terribly invested in much beyond profit margin. They have made another bad bet. AI is science fiction and central to their latest education initiative is the Orwellianly labeled “personalized learning”. A Child sitting at screens responding to computer generated algorithms is as impersonal as it gets. Students hate it.

Policy makers like the cyber concept because they see the possibility of reducing the largest costs in public schools, teachers’ salaries and facilities. Reactionaries see cyber charters as one more positive step toward ending public education. However, people are catching onto this attack on the commons and do not like it.

Making war is not a legitimate central purpose of government; education is. Reduce the embarrassing military industrial complex and put some of those savings into revitalizing public education. Our children deserve small classes in top notch facilities that are well maintained and staffed with certificated professional educators.

It does not take much to see that a wide deployment of taxpayer-funded lightly-regulated cyber schools is a horrible idea. They already have a stunning history of corruption and bad outcomes. If homeschoolers choose to use cyber education, that is fine but there is no need for taxpayers to fund that private choice. There is a small legitimate need for cyber education, but those schools should be administered by elected school boards and not by profiteering corporations.

Sketchy Epic Cyber Charter Has Gone National

4 May

By T. Ultican 5/4/2019

Epic is the business name for Oklahoma’s indigenous and fastest growing virtual charter school chain. In 2015, they moved beyond Oklahoma opening a business in Orange County, California and are currently in contract talks with Pulaski County, Arkansas to provide online education. EPIC’s fast growth has been accompanied by continuous legal problems, charges of political improprieties and claims of unethical aggressive marketing.

The Founders

Ben Harris and David Chaney, two long time friends from Oklahoma City, founded Epic.

Harris and Chaney

The Founders of EPIC Virtual Charter Schools

In 1999, One year after Harris was awarded a Master of Public Administration from Syracuse University, he and Chaney founded Advanced Academics Inc. Today Pearson Corporation the large British testing and publishing company owns Advanced Academics which sells credit recovery courses and software for virtual classes.

Both Harris and Chaney went to work for Jeb Bush in 2003 at the Florida Department of Children and Families. Harris was soon made the Deputy Secretary in charge of technology. He worked under Secretary Jerry Regier who had previously run health and human services in Oklahoma. It was here that Harris made a name for himself by privatizing the child welfare system. However, all was not well.

Megan Rolland of the Tulsa World reported,

“In July 2004, a whistle-blower investigation revealed that Harris had accepted trips, dinners and other favors from companies looking to contract with the social services agency.

“Harris resigned and a full criminal investigation conducted by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement began. No charges were filed.

“The investigation did find that both Harris and Chaney were involved in a number of questionable contracts awarded to vendors that appeared to circumvent the state’s bidding process.

“One of those questionable contracts was awarded to Florida State University’s Institute of Health and Human Services, where Elizabeth VanAcker worked.”

“VanAcker also sits on the board of a nonprofit in Florida that has submitted seven charter school applications for virtual schools that propose contracting exclusively with Advanced Academics.”

“VanAcker’s company — formerly named Edmetrics — created the Epic 1 on 1 Charter School website for Community Strategies Inc.”

Rolland’s Report also shared some founding details about the business originally called Epic 1 on 1 charter schools,

 “Harris is listed as a registered agent for Community Strategies Inc., the nonprofit that is opening Epic 1 on 1 Charter School. He uses his home address on the corporate papers, and he worked behind the scenes to get the school approved by the University of Central Oklahoma.”

In 2009 – just prior to founding Epic – Harris was Chief Financial Officer of Velocity Sports Performance in Irvine, California. The CEO of Velocity Sports Performance when Harris arrived there was Troy Medley, who is now Chairman of the Board for Epic in California.

Epic Found a Way into Orange County, California

Epic is an acronym for excellence, performance, innovation and citizenship. In California the non-profit business name is Next Generation Education. In Oklahoma the non-profit business name is Community Strategies Inc. Neither Epic founder, David Chaney nor Ben Harris, sits on the board of either Next Generation Education in California or Community Strategies Inc. in Oklahoma.

Rather, David Chaney serves as both superintendent of the nonprofit Epic Charter Schools and CEO of Epic Youth Services, a for-profit company that manages the school for a fee. Chaney owns the for-profit corporation, which originally had Harris’s home address listed on the incorporating papers.

A report in the Oklahoma Watch described the Epic business structure:

“The nonprofit contracts with Epic Youth Services, a for-profit company that manages the school for a fee of 10 percent of Epic’s gross revenue. Epic Youth Services, in turn, contracts with Advanced Academics, a division of Connections Education, a Pearson company. Calvert Partners and Beasley Technology also have contracts with Epic Youth Services.”

It appears that the structure is the same in California. In the Next Generation Education board meeting notes, Ben Harris is referenced as providing updates from the charter management organization (CMO) which is Epic Youth Services.

This Byzantine structure hides the fact that Epic is a for profit business cloaked in a non-profit’s suit, thus skirting California’s prohibition against for profit charters. It also means that in their tax forms, the non-profit only reports costs and no salaries. For example, in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2017 Community Strategies Inc. the Oklahoma non-profit reported revenues of $41,487,230 and expenditures of $40,105,203. However, the non-profit reported no salaries because the for-profit does payroll. There is no way for taxpayers to see how many public dollars are going into private hands.

In 2015, EPIC petitioned the Anaheim City School District (an elementary school district) for its first charter outside of Oklahoma. The districts staff investigated the petition, came back with a long list of deficiencies and made a strong denial recommendation. After reviewing the report the district board voted 5 – 0 to deny.

The following three deficiencies are among the more than 20 deficiencies cited:

(1) California charter law requires new charter petitioners to gather signatures showing a demand for the school. When Anaheim City School District started checking the signatures, the majority response they heard was “I don’t know what you are talking about.” They checked 109 of the 526 signatures and these are some of the responses,

“I’ve never heard of EPIC.”

“No, but if you ever need someone to sign a petition to help you with your funding just let me know.”

“I don’t remember signing any petition.”

“I like the school my kids go to, I thought I was just signing a petition saying I am in favor of charter schools.”

“No, I don’t know what you’re talking about, I’m in China.” 

(2) The plan for special education was almost non-existent.

(3) There was no workable plan for English language learners (EL’s).

A widely held belief says charter schools find ways not to enroll more expensive students to educate such as EL’s. The enrollment data for school year 2017-2018 indicates that Epic still has no viable support for EL’s. That appears to be a feature not a flaw.

EL Percentage

At Epic’s 2015 appeal to the Orange County School Board, Leslie Coghlan speaking for the Anaheim City School District explained their petition denial and concluded with,

We would also like to note that at our public hearings in the Anaheim City School District there were not any members of our community that came out to support the charter school at the public hearings. And one of our final concerns is that the Epic’s Oklahoma program is involved in litigation with the Oklahoma Department of Education and currently the subject of a fraud investigation by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation concerning falsification of records to fraudulently receive payments from the Department of Education.

At that same 2015 hearing, Ben Harris defended Epic against the fraud investigation charge. He said, “This is based off a single news article several years ago that is proven to be false as no findings or issues have been raised.

In a 2016 article, KOSU radio of Tulsa and Oklahoma City reported on Epic’s California problems:

“In 2014, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin requested an investigation in to allegations of fraud at the school. … No charges have been filed, and no information has been released.”

“More recently, controversy over EPIC’s business practices came to light last month in an audit prepared by the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT), which provides California school districts with financial and management support.

“The FCMAT audit alleges that Sue Roche, the founder of Oxford Preparatory Academy, which has two charter campuses in Orange County, formed an education management company called Edlighten Learning Solutions to launder school funds for personal profit.

“The audit lays out substantial financial ties between Edlighten and Ben Harris and David Chaney’s company, EPIC Youth Services. The audit says EPIC Youth Services received $5,000 a month from Edlighten for consulting services. The report contains emails between Roche and Harris, EPIC’s co-founder, in which they discuss moving personnel between Oxford Preparatory and their management companies to skirt legal issues.”

This February, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation announced that Epic is once again the target of both state and federal investigators. No additional information was released.

At Epic, a yearly $1500 payment is made into each student’s personal “learning fund” to buy school supplies or use for academically compatible activities. The Orange County Register noted, “Though money doesn’t wind up in the hands of parents or students, the learning fund can, for example, pay for horseback riding, music or dance lessons.” Anaheim Union High School District Superintendent Mike Matsuda called the practice, “predatory marketing.”

Virtual schools like Epic have a history of poor student outcomes. Even the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools released a report sharply critical of virtual charter schools. And the Stanford study of online schools in 17 states and the District of Columbia found that during a 180-day school year, virtual students lost an average of 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days, or an entire school year, of learning in math.

“Why Would Anyone Support These Horrible Schools?”

A friend asked this question about Epic.

To get their foot in the door, Epic’s Ben Harris was able to use his personal connection with his former boss Troy Medley. Medley is currently President of Prima Health Credit of New Port Beach and he serves as Chairman of the Board for the charity Mortgage Miracles for the Kids. The President of Miracles, Autumn Strier – who previously worked for the Giuliani administration – joined Medley on the Next Generation Education (Epic) board as did another associated from Miracles, Chris Relth – a corporate head hunter.

Completing the five member Next Generation Education (Epic) board are Kenny Dodd, senior pastor at Claremont Emanuel Baptist Church in San Diego, and Alex Arcila of the Orange County Hispanic community. Medley is the board President.

Once Epic established an apparently reputable presence in Orange County, they were aided by the fact that this county is the most pro-business and privatization friendly place in California. For example, in the 2018 election for Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Thurmond defeated former Charter School executive Marshall Tuck, but he didn’t come close to matching Tuck’s support in Orange County.

OC 2018 SPI Outcome

Orange County 2018 Election Tallies

During the appeal hearing at the Orange County School Board, the board staff concurred with the Anaheim City School District and recommended the appeal be denied. After the staff submitted their recommendations, representatives of the district made a presentation and Epic co-founder Ben Harris made a presentation. Public comment followed the presentations. There were just seven speakers all from Epic; Epic co-founder David Chaney, Epic’s attorney Michelle Lopez and the five Epic board members.

When the board voted on the Epic appeal, Orange County School Board Trustees Robert Hammond, David Boyd, Linda Lindholm and Ken Williams voted to grant Epic a charter.

This vote also reflected the power of billionaire spending on school privatization.

Buying the Election

Billionaire Money is Distorting Democratic Processes in Local Elections

All but one board member who voted to give Epic a charter received large campaign support from billionaires through three independent expenditure committees; California Charter Schools Association Advocates (CCSAA), Orange County Charter Advocates for Great Schools (which is sponsored by CCSAA) and the Lincoln Club of Orange County. David Boyd, Chancellor of The Taft University System, did not receive documented largess from the billionaires but his campaign did have odd financial support. He loaned his own campaign $72,000, got a $50,000 loan from Taft University and a $25,000 loan from Elizabeth Dorn’s campaign. More than $30,000 in loan debt was later forgiven.

In 2016, the Beverly Hills Billionaire, Howard Ahmanson Jr. (state major donor ID 479163) gave the OC Charter PAC $10,000 and the Local Liberty PAC (State ID 1291528) that Ahmanson finances provided them another $18,171.83.

Howard Ahmanson’s name sake father established the Ahmanson Family Foundation in 1952. Today, that foundation has slightly more than a billion dollars in assets. They give extensively to the arts and LA basin charter schools. In 2016, they gave $500,000 to the billionaire funded pro-school privatization youth group Teach For America. Howard runs the Fieldstad and Company arm of the Ahmanson foundation.

Roberta Ahmanson, Howard’s wife, is a serious Christian thinker and writer. She gave a speech titled “What Fundamentalism Gave Me” at the 2018 commencement for Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Like Betsy DeVos, she is part of The Gathering. Roberta and her husband see Epic as a tool that benefits the Christian home schooling movement.

Some Observations

The Epic contract with Epic Youth Services calls for an annual $125,000 fee for “development services” plus 10% of net revenue be paid to the for profit managers of the CMO, Harris and Chaney. This means that in 2016 Epic Oklahoma paid Epic Youth Services more than $540,000 for their services; this doesn’t include the California revenue. Ben Harris and David Chaney are becoming wealthy men. Because of aggressive marketing which even led to taking over an entire rural school district in Oklahoma and expansion in California, the 2016 $42 million in revenue probably isn’t a forth of the 2019 projected revenue.

In December, Oklahoma Watch reported, “Epic’s two leaders also outspent the political action committee for the largest teachers union, the Oklahoma Education Association, which has 35,000 members across the state.” This looks very much like a replay of Bill Lager’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow and his large political contributions leading to the continued fleecing of taxpayers in Ohio.

It is not in society’s interest to have children educated in isolation. Socialization is an important part of education. As Americans, we should have freedom of choice but we should not expect taxpayers to pay for those choices. If people want to home-school or put their children in private schools, that is their choice. It is more than sufficient for taxpayers to provide a world class professionally run public education system. Public money should not be transferred into private profiteering pockets.