Cyber Schools–What the FAQ? A Union Goon’s Tea Party Question Reveals New British Taxation (with Podcast)

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Podcast of interview with Kevin about this post by Night Shift’s radio host, Tony Trupiano (WDFN Detroit, AM 1130).  (Begins at 1:40)

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 [sic].”

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:

Nice marketing! Much better than those lawn signs!

Nice marketing! Much better than those lawn signs!

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 the “about” button, that might tell me…

NexusAbout

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…

NexusArticle

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 its 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.

ConnectionsAcademy

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 let’s look up this Connections Academy.  I actually just went to www.connectionsacademy.com this time.

ConnectionsAcademy

“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.
ConnectionsFAQtab

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.

FAQ_nonProfit_answer

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?

Wikipedia.  Okay, at least a good place to start...

Wikipedia. Okay, at least it’s somewhere to start…

$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.

Drat!

Drat!

Whew!  This is exhausting!  No wonder Ms. Higgins mailed this one in.  Back to Google which leads me back to my orange friend…

PearsonAcquiresConnections

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 

Smoking guns in Texas aren't too unusual these days

Smoking guns in Texas

And like Professor Moriarty lurking in the background yet controlling so many threads of the spiderweb someone just reminded me of this possibility from late June in Fox Business

Shares of London-based Pearson (PSO) rose about 1% to $17.90 Friday morning on a report that News Corp.’s (NWSA) Rupert Murdoch and Abu Dhabi’s state media group are exploring an acquisition of the Financial Times Group. 

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!

Here's hoping!

Here’s hoping!

So just above the subjective statement that Michigan is a leader, 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.

Related education articles by Kevin (also shared on Huffington Post):

About Kevin Walsh

Before creating MyMediaDiary.com, Kevin taught high school video productions and language arts for 25 years. He is the founder and producer for MMD Productions at www.mmdphotovideo.com which offers quick, professional photography, video and multimedia solutions for individuals, organizations and businesses. His text, "Video Direct," is used in 40 states. He is the current president of the non-profit DAFT (Digital Arts Film and Television) which sponsors the Michigan Student Film Festival. He lives in Royal Oak, Michigan, is married to Patrice and is tolerated by his two teenagers. Follow Kevin on Twitter @kwteacher
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6 Responses to Cyber Schools–What the FAQ? A Union Goon’s Tea Party Question Reveals New British Taxation (with Podcast)

  1. cindykeleman says:

    Hi Kevin,
    Many of the same questions crept through my mind as I also read the article reviewed. I decided to do an informal survey of parents and students from elementary grades through high school regarding the virtual learning option. Many parents had not considered the impact on our public school funding or the ability to attend a face to face school board meeting to air concerns and hold board members accountable (and maintain transparency) as they search for improvements and solutions. Students that eat and breathe technology seemed very excited about the opportunity to attend school on-line. They were not as enthused as having to work with a parent/s while pursuing this type of learning. Those that are home schooled are used to the team-work of parents in their learning process. Those that are challenged in the public school setting might think that this is a way out and will be a breeze rather than attending the local high school. Let’s hope that academic challenges and rigor will still be the cornerstone of the virtual learning world. Sadly, these students will not feel the sting of a ruler knuckle-rap or frightening glare of Sister Robert Ann as she swirls around the classroom doing a virtual mind-meld warily seeking potential wrong-doers as she fulfills her mission to impart tools for sentence diagramming, proper English usage, superior math and geography skills, and last but not least- readable cursive handwriting! As we continue to seek answers as to where and exactly who is Waldo with our educational dollars and clear credibilty, we may have to employ the services of the NSA, CIA or FBI. Perhaps that is not an espionage solution to consider after-all. We must stay strong in our pursuit of truth, justice and the American Way.

    Cindy Keleman

    • Kevin Walsh says:

      Thank you, Cindy! I like the Where’s Waldo reference! It’s too bad it’s so exhausting to find out who owns what and how they get paid, isn’t it? (I wouldn’t try doing the same with the IRS next April 15th!)

  2. Nancy Osborne says:

    Kevin: Great detective work… and of course, Pearson is owned by the conglomerate owned by Rupert Murdoch of Fox News fame.

    • Kevin Walsh says:

      Thanks, Nancy! I’ve added to the post above the June 28 Fox Business article on stocks rising after the possibility of acquiring Pearson was floated out there!

  3. Ken Jackson says:

    Hi Kevin, Wonderful blog post. The original legislation (HB5923) that opened public school money to private vendors like Pearson (although private vendor is too small a term for such a behemoth) would have allowed the entire per-pupil foundation allowance from a MI District to go to the vendor. That was changed in the budget debates (2013) when so many got a sense of what was going on; for what it is worth, the 21c legislation in the budget that allows Pearson to collect is part of the “piecemeal” efforts of Richard McCellan and Governor Snyder to “reinvent” public education. By reinventing, however, they mean gutting. Don’t know which way you stand on this but these kinds of gestures will drain even “rich” districts in two or three years. That is the idea.

    • Kevin Walsh says:

      Thanks, Ken. Pretty disturbing, these end-arounds. I’m hoping that conservatives and liberals can agree that no one should have to search for two hours to figure out who is running a school up the street–particularly one that is given public money with no apparent oversight.

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