I like to fall asleep with the television on Nick at Nite. This morning I woke up to a commercial for Tennessee Connections Academy. Connections Academy runs online K-12 “public” schools in all 50 states. At least that’s how it was advertised.
And for a parent who might have a kid in a brick and mortar public school that state politicians have siphoned off so much money that it’s struggling for supplies, teachers, and other learning material, this option could look pretty good. It’s clearly (or so it seems) tech centered because it’s online and the student will have to use their computer. And when reading the company’s statement online, the curriculum “meets rigorous state education standards.”
And what parent doesn’t want their kid to do well? And what kid wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to not have to go to school? I’m pretty sure most of us faked being sick a time or two just to stay home. Compound that with students who are bullied for being gay, being small, being different and of course they’d beg to stay home and enroll in this program as well. Which I assume is why they’re advertising their “online public school” on Nickelodeon.
Which to point out just briefly, if most of our elected Republican officials in Tennessee weren’t busy trying to take rights away from marginalized communities and dehumanizing them, then maybe the bullying would decrease because culturally and legally it wouldn’t be legal. These Republican elected officials are creating customers for virtual schools, private schools, and for-profit schools.
So let’s look at the facts according to SourceWatch. (SourceWatch is a product of the progressive nonprofit organization, Center for Media and Democracy.)
Connections Academy falls under the umbrella of Pearson, PLC. Most people have either heard of Pearson because of publishing or heard of Pearson because of testing. Either way, at the surface for any parent concerned with their child’s education, a company that is already invested in education seems like the obvious choice.
Here’s Reuter’s company profile for Connections Academy.
Now we get into the meat of the problem. Connections Academy makes its money by stealing money from actual public schools by recruiting students and then taking state funds for their by student allotment. In 2011, it was estimated that Pearson, PLC made $190 million in revenue from Connections Academy. And the company has experienced nothing but growth since 2011 with all of the laws paving the way for public dollars to fund K-12 schooling outside of brick and mortar public education.
In 2013, Connections Academy received all Fs on their state progress reports after taking $19.2 million tax payer dollars for 3,123 students according to a 2013 Politico article. And what happens to those 3,123 students whose academic year was lost to a business capitalist concerned with profit over their future?
According to the National Education and Policy Center in 2019 (Virtual Schools in the U.S. in 2019 by Alex Molnar, Gary Miron, Najat Egleberi, Michael K. Barbour, Luis Huerta, Sheryl Rankin Shafer, and Jennifer King Rice) the national average for public graduation rates in 2017 is 84%. For virtual schools like Connections Academy, the graduation rate is 58.7%.
Connections Academy has ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC according to SourceWatch. ALEC is an organization heavily funded by the conservative foundation, Lynn and Harry Bradley Foundation, with support from the Koch Brothers working to effect conservative change at a state level. Bills from ALEC are introduced under the sponsoring legislator’s name, not ALEC’s, with no mention that the bill was pre-voted on by corporations through ALEC.
In Tennessee some their efforts have resulted in: the passage of vouchers (ESA’s), failure to expand Medicaid, the Heartbeat Bill, online conceal carry certification bill, the Business License to Discriminate Bill, the Counseling Bill to discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community, and the Bathroom Bill to discriminate against the transgender community. Not all of these have passed, but they were all ALEC initiatives. (The Heartbeat Bill will be heard again in a special legislative session on August 12, 2019.)
Due to the siphoning of funding from public schools, many of Tennessee’s parents are concerned about their child’s access to a quality education, to the programs offered to accommodate special needs students, the technology their child will have access to prepare them for jobs of the future, as well as teachers who are paid a competitive salary by the school system to attract the best talent and retain them for each graduating class. But the answer has to be rooted in fully funding our public schools to make them what they need to be, what the promise of America’s democracy is.
According to a July 2019 USA Today article, teachers are 3 times more likely to need a second job to make ends meet. This is especially true for new and younger teachers. Compound this with the fact that teachers are to the best of their ability self financing funding shortages in their classroom. Funding shortages in Tennessee caused by Republican elected officials in the Tennessee General Assembly. Tennessee ranks 35th in the nation for education according to US News and World Report. According to Governing the States and Localities, in 2016 Tennessee ranked 45th in the nation in by pupil spending at $8,810 per pupil.
Companies like Pearson, PLC that start online schools such as Connections Academy, are precisely what’s stripping funding from our public schools. They’re what’s hindering the ability of students to learn and develop into the leaders of tomorrow. They lack adequate socialization, quality curriculum, and access to programs and technology that will prepare them for jobs of tomorrow. Their futures were sold for company and CEO profit.
The way forward has to start in the voting booth. In 2020, vote for candidates who didn’t vote for the voucher bill in Tennessee (as Rep. Matthew Hill and Rep. Micah Van Huss did). Vote for candidates who prioritize funding public schools and understand that every child’s future is rooted in their access to a quality public education.