The Arkansas Department of Education charter application review pane
l approved an application today to start up a new on-line charter school, the Arkansas Connections Academy
, which hopes to eventually enroll 1,200 students whose education would be financed by by more than $8 million a year in tax dollars at that enrollment.
They got a question about corporate structure that school officials seemed to dodge around. There IS a nonprofit organization that operates the school. But it will contract for a substantial amount of its services with a private corporation, Connections Academy of Arkansas LLC
. That outfit would get more than $800,000 for administration alone, and millions more in various categories of spending. That LLC spending and revenue would most likely be behind a corporate shield, unaccountable to the taxpayers shipping the money out to them.
This is big business at work, if that wasn't necessarily clear in the meeting
Sourcewatch explains how Connections operates nationwide
Connections Academy is a division of Connections Education, LLC, which is owned by the UK-based, publicly-traded international media conglomerate Pearson PLC (LSE:PSON, NYSE:PSO).
The company's website says it provides "free" services since it does not charge students, but the services are far from free as they divert taxpayer dollars from the public school system to a private for-profit firm, Connections Education, that made an estimated $190 million in revenue in 2011. (Pearson's total revenues in 2014 were approximately $7.75 billion, with an adjusted operating profit of approximately $1.15 billion.)
Connections Academy contracts with public school districts and charter schools to provide online classes for K-12 students. Connections Academy operated 33 schools in 2013 and had more than 62,000 "Full Time Equivalent students" in 2014. But some of those schools are failing. In September 2013, Politico reported that, "Ohio’s six biggest cyber schools all got Fs on their state progress reports, meaning students learned nowhere near a year’s worth of material in a year of studying online." Ohio Connections Academy received $19.2 million in taxpayer funds for 3,123 students, but those students are failing to meet adequate yearly progress by large margins (-11.3 in reading, -15.7 in math, -17.2 overall.)
Connections Academy has ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other organizations promoting a for-profit educational model from which it stands to benefit financially. Both on its own and as a member of ALEC, Connections Academy has pushed a national agenda to replace brick and mortar classrooms with computers and replace actual teachers with "virtual" teachers. Many have questioned the company's extraordinary revenues, generated at taxpayers' expense. There has also been criticism of the quality of the teachers, the lack of government oversight and democratic accountability, as well as the appropriateness of taking children as young as five out of a classroom of their peers and putting them in front of a computer screen, according to the Washington Post.
On-hand to defend the application — including responding to national findings of poor math performance by on-line charters generally — was a University of Arkansas professor and Arkansas legislators, Sen. Bart Hester
and Rep. Jim Dotson.
Walton-paid charter school lobbyist Gary Newton
is also tweeting cheers fromj the sidelines.
They happen to rely heavily on conservative corporate sources for their campaign financing, including Walmart money.
The applicants struggled to explain in clear terms for the panel what was different between their on-line charter school and the existing Arkansas Virtual Academy.
The charter panel approved the application, 5-2.Surprise. It's a rare charter that runs into resistance from this panel. One member said the applications didn't demonstrate its students could achieve at the state level performance and also questioned support for special ed students. Another expressed a concern about lack of human support for students outside Northwest Arkansas. But a supporter said he was satisfied because the school provided a fund to help poorer students get sufficient Internet services. Two votes described it as a choice to existing offerings.
UPDATE: The panel also heard an application from the Maumelle Charter School
to open a campus in Scott, where the Pulaski County School District
has closed Scott elementary
. Walton money, a school lawyer backed by Walton money and the Maumelle applicants said there was no legitimate desegregation issue to raised by Pulaski County. They made no credible argument that this charter school fills an educational vacancy, except as to providing a neighborhood school for people who want one. It's a dangerous precedent, a huge chink in the wall of conventional public school districts. Want your own school? Form a board or getting an existing charter school to apply for one for you. The Walton Foundation is providing $500,000 to help get the school going. The county would have reopened the school had votes approved a tax increase. They didn't. The application was approved 3-2.