Capitol Chronicle

Lesson No. 1 -- Crime Doesn't Pay ... Yet: Bill Bennett Loses Again at the State Board of Education

When it comes to self-promotion, William Bennett, the former U.S. Secretary of Education and legendary lousy gambler, does not take no for an answer. However profligate he may be in pissing away millions at Vegas casinos, he knows a good bet when it comes to working the government gravy train. Having lost his shirt to the House several times during the 78th Legislature, Bennett and his K12 Inc. online "Virtual Academy" were scheduled to be back in town this week for what looked like a sure thing: selling the con game known as "virtual charter schools" to the State Board of Education. Since the SBOE has generally monitored the charters about as responsibly as Bennett plays the slots, K12's founder and chairman (and the state Republican leadership fronting for him) presumably figured he couldn't lose.

Well, for the moment, it's snake eyes again.

Officially, Bennett's K12 is not a party to the virtual-charter maneuver proposed to the SBOE. Instead, the University of North Texas was to be Bennett's shill, requesting approval to alter the SBOE and Texas Education Agency rules governing charter schools to allow a "virtual or statewide charter school," not allowed under current regulations. The university's administrators made it clear that K12 had the inside track as UNT's vendor of choice, and the initial virtual-charter proposal, to cover kindergarten through seventh grade, coincided nicely with the current limitations of the company's products. Then on Monday, UNT abruptly withdrew its proposal.

K12 still hopes to make millions selling its educational software package to the state, and doesn't seem to care how it accomplishes that goal. Payoff estimates vary depending on who's making the pitch, but at a bare minimum (2,000 students at a lowballed $4,500 each), K12 stands to gross $9 million in its initial semester, with the more grandiose estimates running as high as $40 million. (In legislative testimony, K12 claimed it couldn't break even with fewer than 8,000 students.) This money would come directly from the same Texas school budget that couldn't afford actual textbooks for actual students at actual schools across the state.

Last spring, despite Bennett's personal invocations, the diligent labors of a dozen highly paid lobbyists, and the backroom arm-twisting of the GOP leadership, the Lege repeatedly rejected bills that would have greased the skids for K12. The opposition included plenty of Republican reps who jumped ship because they recognized that the funds for virtual charters would come directly out of their local districts' budgets. Several times, legislators derailed stealth bills and amendments designed to smuggle the online subsidy through the back door. And more than once, legislators took the floor explicitly to reject, on the record, any attempt to spend public school funds on unapproved and unproven virtual charters.

Dracula Returns

Apparently, the stake wasn't driven in deeply enough. Undeterred by the Lege's refusal to go along with the K12 business plan, the company and UNT were lobbying the SBOE and TEA to agree to authorize their proposal in direct defiance of the Legislature. The agency (now run by Robert Scott, formerly of the governor's staff) and at least some of the SBOE members take the position that the board already has the authority to approve virtual charters -- which contradicts not only the legislative record but the SBOE's own rules. For example, no one has yet devised adequate ways to monitor daily attendance and related accountability issues for virtual students -- those niggling details, with which the state so eagerly bedevils traditional schools, would apparently get in the way of Bennett's sweetheart deal. In cyberspace, no one can hear the children left behind.

"I think the Legislature spoke pretty clearly," said Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, one of the floor leaders against K12's onslaught. "We should not be in the business of issuing unlimited no-bid contracts for unclear proposals that don't even specify the problem that this solution is supposed to solve. There is no evidence that K12's materials even work, nor is it clear why the state is going to be charged $4,500 for a product the company sells on its web site for $1,300. I am a firm believer in the value of delivering course material using the Internet, but experts will tell you that it's least likely to work well with the elementary grades, and that's all they currently offer at K12. This is a sole-source deal done to help Bill Bennett."

On Monday, UNT Chancellor Lee Jackson threw in the towel (at least for this round). Acknowledging indirectly the cloudy legislative history, Jackson told the board, "[W]e have concluded that current law ... does not offer a clear framework for an accountable online education program in Texas."

Looks like Bill Bennett -- and the SBOE, which reportedly may proceed with the rule change with or without UNT -- will have to find another patsy.

Mr. Tambourine Man

It would be wrong to suggest that Bennett and K12 would be the only beneficiaries of the state's giveaway. Jackson had attempted to sell the program as an option for isolated rural students or those with special needs, and suggested that the children of migrant workers might find it especially beneficial (studying on their laptops via wi-fi in the produce fields, no doubt). Yet K12's program presumes students will receive three to five hours of direct parental (or other adult) instruction each day. Teacher-administrators will supposedly monitor the program by remote control, at a 50-1 student-teacher ratio.

In effect, that makes K12 an attractive stealth voucher program for home-schoolers, who would receive at least $4,500 in public funds immediately redirected for K12 software, an Internet connection, a K12 computer and printer (on loan), and textbooks and "study materials" (also on loan). For example, Virtual Academy students studying "science" would get a package of metal shavings and a magnet; "music appreciation" students receive a CD and a tambourine. Look out, Lyndon Baines Johnson Marching Band.

Bennett's heavily marketed "Virtues" curriculum is apparently not included in the standard home-school package. For that, parents have to shell out an extra 80 bucks for sanctimonious Bennett homilies like this one: "Moral education -- the task of training the heart and mind toward the good -- involves many things. It involves rules and precepts -- the do's and don'ts of life. It involves the example of adults who, through their daily behavior, show children they take morality seriously."

Judging from his business practices, it's not a lesson William Bennett cares to apply to himself. "What's significant about this whole [K12] effort," comments Ted Melina Rabb of the Texas Federation of Teachers, "is that it's of a piece with congressional redistricting. If you can't do what you want with the normal rules, just keep bending them enough to slip your agenda through -- or until the rules break." end story

Prior to UNT's withdrawal of its proposals, the SBOE's planning committee was scheduled to consider the proposed changes to the charter rules at its meetings Nov. 5 and 6, and at press time it was unknown whether it will remain on the agenda for public discussion today, Thursday, Nov. 6, beginning at 11am at the TEA. For more info, call the committee at 463-9701.

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K12 Inc., Univ. of North Texas, charter schools, Robert Scott, William Bennett, Texas Education Agency, Scott Hochberg, Lee Jackson, Ted Melina Rabb, Texas Federation of Teachers

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