A recent question on a standardized test in New York State seemed to set the bar for stupidity in education reform. Schoolchildren were asked to imagine a race between a talking pineapple and a rabbit and were asked why the spectators ate the pineapple and which animal was the wisest. The question was so indefensibly dumb that they agreed not to grade the answers, though not before a lot of confused complaints and embarrassed apologies.
But if think you the pineapple scandal is the dumbest thing going on in education these days, then you haven't been to Texas recently. We take second place to no one when it comes to stupid. At a time when we fund public schools by looking under the state's fiscal cushions for loose change, our politicians have figured out a way to send money we don't have to not educate our children at schools that don't exist. Top that, New York!
Like most bad ideas in American politics, this all started with the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. ALEC is like a dating service for corporate America where they set up Republican lawmakers with nice pro-business bills from good families and send them off to consummate their laws in legislatures all across the country. It's not how Schoolhouse Rock told us how a bill becomes a law, but it happens all the time.
Back in 2005, ALEC's Education Task Force started pushing a concept called "virtual schools." Unlike distance learning, where a homebound kid with a laptop can log into a real classroom from his very own hospital bed, virtual schools -- also called cyberschools -- exist solely online. What Facebook did to the yearbook, private virtual schools are doing to the actual school -- taking the entire public school experience online.
Nationwide, more than 200,000 kids K12 are enrolled in full-time virtual schools, and more than 2 million "attend" at least one online course. The online learning industry is expected to bring in $24.4 billion by 2015. Apparently the same kid who can't remember to clear his juice glass is a huge business opportunity.
Virtual schools are great at making money, but they can't seem to educate kids. Everywhere they've been tried -- Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas most notably -- they've failed to meet minimum standards and done worse than the real-world public schools that most kids -- mine included -- attend, according to a report put out recently by Progress Texas called "Invisible Schools, Invisible Success: How ALEC Promotes Virtual School Profits Over State Standards & Student Success."
In Texas, where virtual school enrollment has grown from 254 students in 2009 to 8,136 in 2011, we've added insult to imbecility by throwing tax dollars at the false promise of fake schools. If there's something in Texas state government that Rick Perry hasn't privatized, it's just because Governor Oops hasn't thought of it yet. And now they are taking money out of public schools to fund private virtual schools.
When you look at ALEC's Education Task Force, you begin to understand how this virtual corner of the public school system got privatized so quickly. Co-chairing the task force were executives for K12 Inc. and Connection Academy, two virtual school companies. Also on the task force was state Sen. Florence Shapiro, the Republican chair of the Senate Education Committee. When you have virtual school company executives writing legislation with key lawmakers, one of the efficiencies you create is eliminating the need for lobbyists.
In the 2011 session, Shapiro carried the big education bill that gutted public school funding by $5.4 billion -- the first cut in school funding since the Great Depression. Shapiro's bill also contained a requirement that virtual schools get the same amount of tax dollars per student that brick and crumbling mortar schools get, despite the fact that we didn't have enough money to teach the kids who went to real public schools, much less fake private ones.
The reason we say "God bless Texas" down here so much is that we seem to need Her help here more often. In other, saner places, it would sound stupid to take money from the real schools that need it and throw it at the fake schools that don't deserve it. And you don't even need a talking pineapple to tell you that.