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Home Education Magazine

November-December 2002 - Articles and Columns

Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman

How William Bennett's Public E-Schools Affect Homeschooling

Many homeschoolers are familiar with the name William Bennett. He is known as a conservative, a former U. S. Secretary of Education, and editor of books such as The Book of Virtues. In the past, a significant number of homeschoolers may have appreciated his position on some issues. However, in his role as a key promoter of public e-schools, Bennett is acting in ways that disregard our interests as homeschoolers and undermine our homeschooling freedoms. (Public e-schools, also called virtual charter schools, are public schools that direct students' schooling in their homes via the Internet at taxpayers' expense.)

It is important to see Bennett's actions in the context of the Knowledge Universe (KU), a huge educational enterprise. KU is the brainchild of Michael Milken, the former "junk bond king" who made as much as $500 million annually while dealing in junk bonds. He then served time as a convicted felon in connection with his financial dealings.

According to an article from Forbes.com, September, 2001, KU is designed to make money by selling information over the Internet to people from cradle to grave. It is a network of nearly 50 companies (as of September, 2001), many of them interlocking. It includes a number of companies that provide online curriculums, tutoring, test preparation, testing, and school management for preschoolers through middle schoolers. These companies are amassing a huge data base that includes the names and skill levels of people using their products or services and that can be used by other KU companies.

One example is LeapFrog which manufactures interactive educational toys linked via the Internet to materials from other companies in KU. When kids play with the toys, their input is analyzed and their toys reprogrammed to fit their skill level and sometimes even their school curriculum. It is easy to see how these toys could be marketed to parents who want their kids to master rote learning at as young an age as possible, by whatever means, even though the process might have harmful side effects.

As kids get older, KU companies continue to sell their parents educational products and services. KU companies also provide online job training, another huge market. (One analyst predicts that the amount corporations spend on such training from outside sources will increase from $2.2 billion in 2000 to $11.4 billion in 2004.) Since KU can offer so much variety from a single source, many corporations are drawn to the ease and convenience of using these companies. For more information about KU, see the full article at http://www.forbes.com/asap/2001/0910/064.html. (Forbes is a well regarded business magazine.)

What does all this have to do with William Bennett? He is chairman of K12 Inc., a company that sells online curriculums to individual families and public e-schools and is part of the Knowledge Universe. Although Bennett is chairman of K12 Inc., he doesn't own it, and it wasn't his idea. According to an article from BusinessWeek Online, Milken and Ron Packard (now the CEO of K12 Inc.) approached Bennett and asked him to chair a company they were organizing that was launched with $10 million from Milken. Although Bennett had written in 1999 in The Educated Child (a book he co-authored with John T. E. Cribb and Chester E. Finn) that there is "no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly improve learning," he agreed.

Thus Bennett has become the chief spokesperson for a campaign to establish public e-schools run by K12 Inc. According to the K12 Inc. web site, in August of this year alone, Bennett was scheduled to make 16 personal appearances at events to promote public e-schools partnered with K12 Inc. in California, Idaho, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. (K12 Inc. scheduled a total of 74 promotional events during August in those 4 states, an indication of their aggressive marketing.)

Because homeschoolers are a major, if not the major, target market for public e-schools, Bennett is a logical choice for this role. He has been well regarded by some homeschoolers, is included on some homeschooling web sites, and has been on the cover of at least one homeschooling magazine. He has been aggressively marketing his K12 Inc. curriculum to individual homeschoolers.

Homeschoolers Unhappy
With K12 Inc. and Bennett

Homeschoolers in other states are expressing their opposition to the actions of Bennett and K12 Inc. Consider the following excerpt from a Letter to the Editor of Home Education Magazine:

Requests by K12 to be included in homeschooling conferences as curriculum vendors in Ohio and other states are being declined, including: Christian Home Educators of Ohio, Christian Parents Education Fellowship (Findlay, OH), Wisconsin Parents Association, Illinois Christian Home Educators, and the Christian Home Education Association of California. In fact, in keeping with their stated mission, CHEA of California canceled K12 founder Bill Bennett as their keynote speaker last year because of the linkage between K12 and publicly funded programs.

After being declined by conference planners, K12 made their intent to capitalize on the homeschooling "market" evident when they booked open houses to promote their operation and curriculum in the Columbus hotel where homeschoolers were lodging while attending the Christian Home Educators of Ohio annual convention. (K12 used this same tactic during this year's conference for the CHEA group in California.) From a letter from Ohio Home Education Coalition, published September-October, 2002, p. 22.

Many homeschoolers throughout the country have come to understand that Bennett's promotion of public e-schools is a threat to homeschoolers. It reveals his and K12 Inc.'s lack of understanding of how important parents are to the education of their children and how important families' principles and beliefs are to their children's educations.

Homeschoolers are a key to the K12 Inc. enterprise. Milken and Bennett are building on the success of homeschooling. Parents who are not certified teachers have been very successful in educating their children. Homeschooled children are well socialized. Thousands of grown homeschoolers are now successful adults, employees, and college students. Without evidence provided by the success of the modern homeschooling movement, Milken, Bennett, and others would be having a much more difficult time launching their enterprise and recruiting investors and potential participants.

In pursuing the K12 Inc./public e-school initiative, Bennett and the K12 Inc. organization have disregarded homeschoolers' concerns and have refused to take seriously how public e-schools will affect us homeschoolers and our homeschooling freedoms. In marketing public e-schools, K12 Inc. has targeted homeschoolers by using lists of homeschoolers' names and repeatedly and aggressively contacting many of us through direct mail, phone, and the Internet.

Bennett and the K12 Inc. organization have argued that parents need a range of choices, and public e-schools are just another choice. However, choice for public e-schoolers is limited to deciding where their children will receive their public school education, while choice for homeschoolers means deciding what our children will be taught and taking direct responsibility for their education. Because many people think public e-schools are homeschools, there will be enormous pressure for the regulations that public e-schools are under (because they are public schools) to be applied to homeschools. Then we will all lose the choice to homeschool independently of public schools and will only be able to decide where our children will receive their public school education.

The major differences between Bennett's goals and those of most homeschoolers can be seen clearly in Bennett's comments during an interview by Mark Standriff on WSPD radio in Toledo, Ohio, August 16, 2002.

Standriff: What kind of opposition have you folks found?

Bennett: We found opposition from both sides of the political spectrum. Some of the homeschooling people have opposed us.

Standriff: Oh really, I would think this would be right in line with their thinking.

Bennett: Well it should be. Frankly, I'm disappointed. I've been defending homeschoolers for twenty years. But the principle I'm defending, Mark, is school choice, parental choice. The objection they have is that it shouldn't be involved in public funding, at all. It shouldn't be involved with government schools, as they say. But, I'm not prepared to relinquish $400 billion and just say, well never mind, this is not money that I'm entitled to. Parents are paying that money in taxes, they should have an option within the public school system that gives them a chance to educate their children at home, but be publicly accountable as all public schools should be.

Clearly, Bennett disagrees with most homeschooling parents about the importance of being independent of public schools. As homeschoolers we want to maintain responsibility for our children's education, not turn it over to the state. We want something different from what public schools offer.

The $400 billion Bennett refers to is the estimated amount American taxpayers spend on public schools each year. To be sure, $400 billion is a lot of money. But we homeschoolers realize that if we take money from the state, we will lose our homeschooling freedoms.

While a significant number of homeschoolers may have appreciated Bennett's position on some issues in the past, clearly he is now using his reputation in the homeschooling community to gain a foothold on using public money to school children in their homes. (Offering the K12 Inc. curriculum through public e-schools means promoters can collect tax money rather than having to convince parents to pay for the program themselves. Thus they can collect more money, often over $5,000 per student per year, than most parents could afford to pay.) Therefore, we homeschoolers need to let other homeschoolers and the general public know that Bennett's commitment to using public money in this way runs counter to what most homeschoolers want and would undermine the very nature of homeschooling as we know it.

Evidence that Public E-Schools Will Lead to Increased Regulation of Homeschools

Recent developments in Alberta, Canada, support the idea that public e-schools could easily lead to increased regulation of homeschoolers. Homeschoolers in Alberta can now be reimbursed by the state for up to $2,000 per child in approved educational expenses.

Of course, this means that they must be more accountable to the state. They are now required to be visited at home twice a year by a certified teacher who then files a report with the public schools. And what happens to homeschoolers who do not want to sell their freedom in exchange for tax money? They are not required to apply for reimbursement, but they are still required to submit to two certified teacher visits and reports per year.

This example documents two important points. (1) Homeschoolers who get tax dollars for educational expenses will be held accountable by the state and regulations on them will increase. (2) Homeschoolers cannot assume that they can avoid increased regulation simply by refusing to accept tax dollars that are offered to homeschoolers. When regulations are increased for some homeschoolers (or in the case of public e-schools, families whom non-homeschoolers assume are "homeschoolers"), the increased regulations are very likely to be applied to all homeschoolers, regardless of whether they are accepting tax money (or enrolling in a public e-school).

The General Public Sees Public E-Schools as "Homeschools"

Some people claim that as long as public e-schools are not officially called "homeschools," public e-schools will not lead to increased state regulation of homeschools. However, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to prevent the general public from calling them "homeschools," because most people think that anyone being schooled in their home is a homeschooler. Just one example: In a recent New York Times article on public e-schools, a Yale psychology professor is quoted as saying, "This [public e-schooling] is pushing home-schooled kids even further into noninteraction with other people."

What We Can Do

* We can understand and remember the ways in which Bennett's promotion of public e-schools is using homeschoolers to our detriment.

* We can share this information with others.

* We can encourage state homeschooling organizations and support groups and homeschooling publications to register opposition to K12 Inc. by refusing to have K12 Inc. representatives at conferences (see sidebar) and to accept ads from K12 Inc.

Conclusion

William Bennett may make public schoolers of us all. He is aggressively promoting public e-schools without regard to the negative effects they have on homeschools and homeschooling freedoms. Sometimes he even uses homeschoolers' successes and names from mailing lists in his promotions. His actions could lead to homeschoolers increasingly needing to meet public school standards and requirements. It is time to understand what Bennett is doing, inform others, and encourage homeschooling organizations to say "no" to K12 Inc.

2002 Larry and Susan Kaseman

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November-December 2002 - Articles and Columns

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