Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Betsy DeVos: The Midas Touch in Education

In all likelihood, Betsy DeVos will soon be confirmed as U. S. Secretary of Education, meaning she’ll be guiding our nation’s public schools. Typical of most candidates for the job, DeVos never taught a day in her long, privileged life. DeVos never attended public schools and never sent her children to public schools, either. 

We have had clueless Secretaries of Education before, but what separates Ms. DeVos from people like Arne Duncan and Bill Bennett, both singularly clueless, and makes her a million times more dangerous, is her love affair with for-profit charter schools. Consider K12 Inc., a typical for-profit online charter school in which DeVos has invested. K12 operates like any business, a giant pharmaceutical company, a strip mining conglomerate, or a cigarette manufacturer. 

So how does K12 approach the task of helping children? Does the company start by hiring the best teachers! No. The company focuses on hiring the best executives. How does K12 manage to hire the best executives? Call it the pedagogical equivalent of the Midas touch. 

K12 pays big. 

In 2016 Nathaniel A. Davis, Executive Chairman of K12, received $6.91 million in compensation. A little digging shows Davis made $5.33 million in 2015. He made $4.25 million in 2014. He made $9.54 million the year before that. Round it off and he piled up a total of $26 million.

Because K12 is a publicly traded company—with a stock price that rises and falls—they are required to publish salaries. Since 2012 top earners include:

Timothy L. Murray $11.67 million (four years of shedding blood, sweat and tears for kids)

Allison B. Cleveland $2.84 million (three)

Harry T. Hawks $2.01 million (two)

Howard D. Polsky $3.83 million (four)

Joseph P. Zorella $2.11 million (two)

James J. Rhyu $9.24 million (four)

Celia M. Stokes $1.82 million (two; why, this poor public servant is barely making minimum wage)

Stuart J. Udell $4,540,698 (all in 2016)

Ron J. Packard $12.09 million (three).

That total for Mr. Packard may seem weak, covering only 2012-2014. Going back to 2009, we find he earned $23 million.

Of course, all good businesses cut costs where they must. British Petroleum, health insurance companies, car dealers, this is what they do. It’s that “business efficiency” we hear critics of regular public schools talk so much about. That means teachers at K12 Inc. sacrifice for the good of the cause. In a study done in 2014 it was shown the average Ohio public school teacher earned $56,855 per year.

The average K12 teacher earned $34,333.

In addition, for-profits have business expenses ordinary public schools do not. To turn a profit a for-profit must advertise. According to an investigative report by USA Today, K12 spent $21.5 million in taxpayer dollars on advertising in the first eight months of 2012 alone. It also helps to donate millions of taxpayer dollars to campaigns of elected officials, who then keep taxpayer dollars flowing in a virtuous circle.

The only fly in the soup is this: Paying megabucks to executives and donating megabucks to politicians doesn’t help children. In the most detailed study done so far on Ohio E-schools, it was estimated that $1 billion in state funding went to on-line schools between 1999 and 2014, including Ohio Virtual Academy, an offshoot of K12.

What did taxpayers get for that pile of cash? On state report cards, grades for charter schools, generally, were poor. 

For E-schools results were grim:

Graduation rates were abysmal. The median statewide four-year graduation rate for high schools was 93.2 percent. Not one of nine statewide E-schools had a graduation rate as high as the lowest school district, Warrensville Heights, at 60.9.

Ohio Connections Academy came in at 55.1.

The Buckeye Online School of Success had success with 45% of all students. 

Greater Ohio Virtual Academy: 43.5.

Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (and classroom for next year for many students since few graduate on time): 38.4.

Ohio Virtual Academy, the school that pays executives millions, the school partly owned by Ms. DeVos: 36.6.

Four other on-line for-profits in Ohio did worse, graduating 33.1, 26.7, 20.6 and 17.3% of all students in four years.

And we saved the best news" for last! According to a Stanford University study of Buckeye State E-schools, students lost the equivalent of 72 days of reading learning yearly, compared to students in regular public schools. In math, it was worse: 180 days of math learning lost annually.

You read that right. 

If you do the math (and for Ohio E-school students this might be difficult) there are:

   180 days of school per year
  -180 days of math learning lost per year
       0 total days of math learning per year in E-schools.

“There’s still some possibility that there’s positive learning,” Margaret E. Raymond, project director at the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which completed the study, told a stunned reporter last fall,but it’s so statistically significantly different from the average, it is literally as if the kid did not go to school for an entire year.”

So there you go. Turning students into gold hasn’t worked so far and probably never will. 

Ms. DeVos may have a plan to protect children from grizzlies. Sadly, she shows little interest in protecting them from greedy corporate raiders.


To get a good sense of how K12 Inc. works read “Fifteen Months in Virtual Charter Hell.”

Also excellent: “K12 Inc. Tries to Pivot from Virtual School Failures to Profit from ‘Non-Managed’ Schools.”

If you happen to have a masochistic streak, and want to see a list of all the politicians to whom Ms. Devos has donated, check out this link.

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