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October 15th, 2012
Ed-tech firms shaping education policy
Are choices being driven by student needs—or profits?
(Editor’s note: Ed-tech industry executives are influencing key education policy decisions, a newspaper’s investigation reveals—even providing the wording of legislation they’d like adopted in various states. This raises an important question for our democracy: Are the same companies that stand to profit from such moves too close to the decision-making process?)
Stephen Bowen was excited and relieved.
Maine’s education commissioner had just returned to his Augusta office last October after a three-day trip to San Francisco, where he attended a summit of education reformers convened by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, which had paid for the trip.
He’d heard presentations on the merits of full-time virtual public schools and watched as Bush unveiled the “first ever” report card praising the states that had given online schools the widest leeway.
But what had Bowen especially enthusiastic was his meeting with Bush’s top education aide, Patricia Levesque, who runs the foundation but is paid through her private firm, which lobbies Florida officials on behalf of online education companies.
Bowen was preparing an aggressive reform drive on initiatives intended to dramatically expand and deregulate online education in Maine, but he felt overwhelmed.
“I have no ‘political’ staff who I can work with to move this stuff through the process,” he eMailed her from his office.
Levesque replied not to worry; her staff in Florida would be happy to suggest policies, write laws and gubernatorial decrees, and develop strategies to ensure they were implemented.
“When you suggested there might be a way for us to get some policy help, it was all I could do not to jump for joy,” Bowen wrote Levesque from his office.
“Let us help,” she responded.
So was a partnership formed between Maine’s top education official and a foundation entangled with the very companies that stand to make millions of dollars from the policies it advocates.
In the months that followed, according to more than 1,000 pages of eMail messages obtained from a public-records request, the state’s education commissioner would rely on Bush’s foundation to provide him with key portions of his education agenda. These included draft laws, the content of the administration’s digital education strategy, and the text of Gov. Paul LePage’s Feb. 1 executive order on digital education.
A Maine Sunday Telegram investigation found that large portions of Maine’s digital education agenda are being guided behind the scenes by out-of-state companies that stand to capitalize on the changes, especially the nation’s two largest online education providers.