Not Welcome Sign = No R&D

Events of this week illustrate why there is so little private R&D in education.  In short, the market sucks.  The combination of an inefficient bureaucratic three-tiered governance structure and outright hostility to private service providers from public employee groups dramatically limits private investment in research and development.  As a result, we’re 15 years behind on learning tools development compared to advances in other sectors.
New York improved its shot at a Race to the Top grant this week by raising the state charter school cap this week (due in large part to a great DFER campaign), but the union-backed House Speaker also snuck in a provision banning high performing for-profit school managers.
Mr. Silver managed to include a provision banning new charter contracts with for-profit management companies. Never mind that students at nine of 10 for-profit charters recently outperformed surrounding districts schools in math and reading on standardized tests. Which suggests that prohibiting for-profits from opening new charter schools has everything to do with slowing their growth, not helping kids. (WSJ)
On the left coast, the OEA and Northwest Regional ESD proposed eliminating the virtual charter schools and folding online options under one single, state government-run program called the “Oregon Option,” which is essentially an expansion of the state-run Oregon Virtual School District.  It also then heaps on a bunch of new arbitrary barriers, regulations, and other provisions that deny families access and choice.  This is eerily similar to the first proposal launched in Wisconsin.

  • Establish a consortium, called “The Oregon Option”, of public education online services that utilize courses and teachers that build on the library of curriculum established by the Oregon Virtual School District (OVSD) and also teacher-designed curricula.  The state would approve and purchase the materials from the OVSD biennial ($2 million) budget.  Vendors could offer high-quality products to the consortium as long as they were able to agree to open access by public educators to their materials and curriculum, thereby offering a diverse course catalog to interested students.  All materials would become the property of the OVSD and the State of Oregon.  OVSD would run all logistics for maintenance of this program (contracting, rate-setting, procurement, etc.).
  • The consortium would hire and provide professional development to online teachers from Oregon’s licensed teacher corps.
  • Convert their charter online programs to alternative schools, which would require contracting with sending districts for out-of-district public school students.

All of the private online providers oppose it.  And, of course, parents are furious.  This will probably die the way it did in Washington State, but it is another example of opposition to charters, virtual schools, competition, and parent choice.
In addition to squashing choice, these attacks reduce private investment in education.  Fifteen years into online learning, students still slog through digital textbooks when they should have their choice of engaging and adaptive learning experiences.  Next gen content will take investment, but why would companies like K12, Connections, KCDL, and Apex spend $50-100 million to produce second generation content when states continue to attack their basis of existence?
State virtual schools can provide an important service particularly in helping districts develop and deploy blended models but if we want to see innovative learning tools and schools, states need to embrace not ban private partners.
By limiting options, state leaders not only do a disservice to families, but they begin a cycle of obsolesce that a public agency has difficulty avoiding.  Instead, state leaders should framing market opportunities and inviting private partners to invest in solutions.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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