THE BLOG
09/03/2013 11:15 am ET | Updated Oct 31, 2013

Cyber Schools: What the FAQ? A Union Goon's Tea Party Question Reveals New British Taxation

The following was originally published by Kevin in his blog, MyMediaDiary.com.

If Columbus explored as much as the Detroit Free Press, he'd have never left that dock in southern Spain.

In a "Free Press-Release" yesterday by Lori Higgins, Michigan Students to Have Many Options for Online Learning, we learn of the many choices that Michigan students now have to their education via online learning following the passage of Senate Bill 619. I had high hopes that I'd finally learn a little more about the companies that are running these schools (if they are indeed companies).

You'll find all kinds of facts and opinions in the ever-popular comments section (from trolls and non-trolls) to the article, examining the ethics and big-picture questions that I won't explore here. I'm just trying to follow the money.

You may have seen the marketing -- lawn-signs stuck in the grass by telephone poles offering "tuition-free" virtual online education -- right beside great deals for mattress sets and "lawn maintenants."

If I ever decided to not mow my tiny lawn, I guess I wouldn't care if the guy could spell. But the mattress-deals for king-sized bed sets for $199 seemed a bit suspect. Even the local mattress stores that populate metro Detroit seem a bit shady. And apparently it's not a local phenomenon.

Yuck. And I thought those bedbugs were bad enough. Unfortunately, there don't seem to be many local news crews with hidden cameras lurking about the Department of Education and its online schools bill.

"No Further Questions, Your Honor"

I searched for the journalistic counter-point that I used to find in stories such as these. A news story could at least say, "The Enron executives were unavailable for comment" -- showing that, at least, someone made a phone call.

But I found no devils advocating anything other than the government talking-points, even at the natural spots in the article for presenting an opposing argument, such as "A key feature of this new option: Students will not need permission from their home district to sign up for the classes, and the home district must pay for them."

There's a good spot, said the English teacher. Ms. Higgins's editor might have suggested that she insert a local district's reaction or, better yet, do some digging and find how much money, say, ten districts in the area will be paying out.

When Is Royal Oak Not in Royal Oak?

And while we're following the money, let's go to another moment in the article...

"'They're being aggressive as to trying to offer an alternative to traditional school. If you drive around, you see little signs everywhere,' said Cheryl Azzi, who enrolled her daughter in Nexus Academy of Royal Oak, a new charter school that blends online learning with traditional bricks-and-mortar learning."

I'm in Royal Oak! I've not seen this place. So I followed the handy-link to the company's website and found its happy page at this link.

Okay, looks like the classes are small. And they're all pretty pumped about school starting. (I'm therefore suspicious) I wonder who owns this school? So I clicked on the "About" link.

Hmmm... just more press release material. If I wanted that, I'd just stay on the Free Press article I'd just left.

Finding Mother Ship #1

I know, I'll Google something creative like "Who owns Nexus Academy of Royal Oak." No companies pop up, but it does take me to an article on the school. So I click on the link to discover that "Nexus Academy of Royal Oak, located at 31333 Southfield Rd. in Beverly Hils, is ready to open its doors..."

Wait...the Nexus Academy of Royal Oak isn't in Royal Oak. Okay, so it's a mile or so west of Royal Oak. Perhaps parents should steer clear of the school's Cyber-Geography and Cyber-Ethics courses.

And apparently there are three locations. Let's do some more Googling! So I type in "Nexus Academy Locations" and the top hit is from connectionsacademy.com.

I'd know those orange and green school colors anywhere! Okay, so Connections Academy is Nexus Academy. And the Royal Oak school is in Beverly Hills. Got it.

So I decided to check out the site, hoping to find an owner, board or man-behind-the-curtain: "The party of the first party shall hereby be known as the party of the first part..."

Okay, same orange color-scheme for the big company. Let's find out where my district's money is going. Let's try the "About Us" page.

Oops. There isn't one handy at the top. But, under the "Our Program" tab there's a FAQ section. So I look there. And sure enough, under the specific title of "Other" we find:

Ah hah! The million-dollar question. Ah hah! The million-dollar question.

Are Connections Academy schools non-profit?

...and its corresponding answer: "Connections Academy public schools are operated under contract to non-profit organizations that are either charter schools, school districts, or governmental entities. National Connections Academy is a private school."

So based on the two sentences above, "Connection Academy public schools" is "a private school" -- unless Connections Academy is different than National Connections Academy?

I'm having Marx Brothers flashbacks and Groucho's "Party of the first part." (It's a great bit, but if you are in a hurry, move ahead to about the 1:15 mark.)

Okay, enough levity.

Finding Mother Ship #2

I think it's all clear to me now. My Royal Oak kid attends a Royal Oak academy that's in Beverly Hills and my public school pays for him to attend a public academy that is a franchise of a national private school.

Now let's do a news Google search on who owns Connections Academy. Ahh! Why didn't I try Wikipedia first?

"On September 15, 2011, Pearson, an international learning company, acquired Connections Education for in excess of $400 million, with an eye to establishing a position in the virtual school segment and the opportunity to apply Connections Education's skills and technologies in new segments and geographic markets."

$400 million. So now, as we follow my kid's bounty, the money that Royal Oak must surrender goes to a Baltimore-based company that is currently owned by the London-based Pearson PLC. So, not always trusting Wikipedia, I go to to Pearson and try a search for Connections Academy.

No dice. According to their search bar, they'd never heard of Connections Academy.

Whew! This is exhausting! No wonder Ms. Higgins mailed this one in. Back to Google which leads me back to my orange friend at Connections Academy's own press release.

Okay, it's confirmed from the sub-company at least. So let's see if there's anything in the news. Well, just six days ago, The New York Times relayed a story from the Texas Tribune: "Cyberschools Grow, Fueling New Concerns."

"State law prohibits commercial entities from operating public schools. But when it comes to full-time online programs, it is common for public districts and charter schools to turn over almost all management to commercial companies. This is considered a turnkey solution for districts lacking the resources to support an in-house online school."

IAQs: Infrequently Asked Questions

It's too bad nobody at the Free Press seems to read New York or Texas papers. This would have been a great "related article" in Ms. Higgins's piece. But let's see what is a related article in yesterday's story.

There's one -- right where I left off! Online Learning Frequently Asked Questions

So I click on the PDF article that is prepared, according to the header, by the "Michigan Department of Education and Virtual University" folks, amazingly just a day earlier. And I can only hope that the state will be just as transparent in their FAQs as the British company's Baltimore-based company on its Royal Oak public/private school in Beverly Hills.

There are some decent questions on the 26-point document -- including:

#4: Can a district deny a student's request to enroll in an online course?

Yes -- seeming to perhaps contradict Ms. Higgins's article: "Students will not need permission from their home district to sign up for the classes" (But I guess technically signing-up doesn't mean enrolling. )

#10. What is the limit on the costs that districts are required to cover for online course enrollments? Short answer, 1/12 of the district's state foundation allowance--or at least $589 per class per semester. Not a bad deal. $2,356 at least that your local district has to pay to this company if your kid takes two classes online.

After double-checking to see if there were more on the back of the PDF, I decided to include the following additions...

#27 Is there a class-size limit? (Will my student's teacher be also working with 400 other students online?)

#28: How accountable are the companies running these schools to student success? (It's only fair, since public schools are under increased results-based assessment or face more cuts in funding.)

#29: Who owns the companies receiving this public money? I only examined one of the schools.

#30: How much profit do these "contractors" make per student--whether the kid passes or fails?

I don't mind change. I think our current schools need major revisions to adjust with technology. But any change to my local school is subject to complete transparency and microscopically close public scrutiny.

For, like those yard-signs' proximity, the following questions shouldn't lurk so near one another in my brain.

-- Why is that mattress so cheap?

-- Why do I have to spend two hours figuring out who gets paid when my kid attends a Royal Oak school in Beverly Hills?

I don't even know when the next cyber school board meeting is so I can ask somebody.