“Selling Schools Out: the Scam of Virtual Education Reform.” The headline gracing the cover of the Nation’s December 5 edition does a pretty good job conveying the nuance and objectivity to be found in its expose of the digital learning landscape,
a sprawling indictment of online schooling in general. Author Lee Fang
describes a corrupt alliance of think tanks, politicians, lobbyists, and
private companies intent on recklessly promoting an unproven education
model for corporate gain. Their coordinated efforts, to hear Fang tell
it, have resulted in a “legislative juggernaut” that loosened
restrictions on virtual schooling in thirteen states in 2011 alone,
triggering a “gold rush of investors clamoring to get a piece of the
K-12 education market.”

It’s certainly an entertaining read, complete with union busting,
multiple “infamous” operatives, online smear sites, and an
arch-villain—the “Man Behind the Virtual Curtain”—Jeb Bush. Yet for all
its supposedly incriminating audio files and closed-door meetings, the Nation piece is more about ideology than scandal. Education Sector’s Bill Tucker took Fang to task
for omitting and mischaracterizing public sector innovation in online
schooling to preserve a narrative of privatization, and rightfully so,
but it’s worth owning a part of that story.

The growth of digital learning promises to bring unprecedented
private sector investment to education. Major corporations are lining up
to pour money into research and development, while education technology
startups emerge daily. These organizations want to improve educational
opportunities and outcomes for students—and they want to profit from it.
They offer the ability to foster innovation and efficiency in ways our
traditional education delivery systems are woefully unable to. Our
public education system simply doesn’t have the capacity or flexibility
to produce solutions that take advantage of digital learning’s potential
as nimbly and creatively as the private sector.

Supporters of online learning know this: It’s why they want to create
a policy environment that encourages the growth of digital learning and
enables private interests to facilitate it. Underlying the Nation
article is the conviction that private enterprise doesn’t belong in
public education. Fang sees “for-profit virtual school companies…using
philanthropy as a Trojan horse.” The reality is that digital learning
advocates acknowledge the merits of bringing the private sector to the
table, and therefore the two groups will often have shared goals.
Sometimes these private interests will act as vendors of services to
public schools and sometimes they may operate those schools directly. In
either case, they must be monitored closely and held accountable for providing a quality product. Still, they should have the opportunity to provide that product.

Digital learning will bring increased private investment and
competition to a sector historically shielded from it. Those private
interests will need to be watched and regulated, but they ultimately
offer an invaluable means to realizing education technology’s promise.
And, yes, there should also be objective attention paid to the connections between business and policymakers. The Nation’s
canard offers none of that, but it does foreshadow how bitterly
contested the path to sound policy for digital learning may prove to be.

For more on this topic, check out Fordham’s Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning series, including Frederick M. Hess’ “Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning: Three (Imperfect) Approaches.

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