Kids as Commodities: Virtual Learning and Real Profits

They never surrender when there is still loot to be had. If nothing else, our American army of Privateers continue to find wildly creative methods to continue extracting wealth from the declining Empire. And sometimes the windfalls can come from little children.

I was sitting with my young daughter as she watched a program on television the other day. No, I’m not perfect — I haven’t slung the TV out the window like a person probably should. And, yes, I allow her to watch a show now and then. This particular one is called “Rescue Heroes” and they pretty much just go around rescuing people whether they like it or not. And they tell kids not to start fires. That seems reasonable. So, yeah, I let her watch it.

As I sat with her, a commercial came on for something called K12. The advertisement seemed just too bouncy and giddy to be legitimate. Children were raving about their magnificent experiences being schooled at home through their computers. And as if to reassure the parents, it was highlighted that all of that glorious learning came through public school lesson plans. I mean, these kids were absolutely beaming, as joyous as if Rocky Canyon had just rescued them from a wolverine’s jaws!

After I finished watching the amazing rescues, I decided to look into this K12 thing. I’ve realized that the stench of privatization is quite noticeable if you are paying attention, and it pops up in the most unlikely places. I had a hunch this was to be one of those times.

I found out that this K12 enterprise now has over 80,000 students pounding away on laptops, making it one of the largest “districts” in the nation. The thing is, it’s not a school district. It’s a publicly traded entity that actually makes profits off of the students. It’s traded under ticker symbol LRN. No, they aren’t cashing in on kiddie carpal tunnel surgery — they get public funding as if the kids were sitting in traditional classrooms. Surprisingly, providing online content and no gym locker equals big profits for the “educators” who have waded into the pixilated education of our youth.

This is the world of Charter Schools — under state laws these schools generally can’t make a profit, but there’s a catch, always a catch…. The school boards can select for-profit management companies, like K12, to oversee the burgeoning one-screen schoolhouses that are popping up around the nation. They get almost as much per child as traditional schools (with generally just enough cost savings to brag about). It’s a very inexpensive manner to deliver “education”. There exists home after home of children leashed to their computers –that is, if they actually even bother doing the online studies. Shockingly, truancy is quite common with the process.

Just who are these groundbreaking individuals who have found this sweet spot of public fund availability?

No other than Michael Milken (yeah, that Junk Bond guy, James’ crappy brother), and former Goldman Sachs banker, Ron Packard. These two were there at the beginning of K12. When teachers are asked why they went into that profession, they generally comment that they felt driven to teach. Packard makes it clear what their intentions were in the article, “Education According to Mike Milken” by John Hechinger. Packard said: “Mike believes that education is a phenomenal investment opportunity.” He optimistically predicts: “There’s no reason why eventually you can’t be educating a billion kids online.”

If you don’t recall, Milken gained notoriety during the heady bond trading days of the 1980s. It was the beginning of the Greed is Good crowd. Milken was indicted on 98 counts of racketeering and fraud during this time and he ended up pleading guilty to six counts of securities and tax violations. He went to jail for almost two years, but it really didn’t seem to hurt his bottom line too much. He has a comfortable perch as #488 in the Forbes list of Billionaires.

It’s really getting pretty difficult to startle me. I’ve become fairly numb by the constant loot grabs in the name of the “free” market. But mining our kids for coins, especially ones who are vulnerable for this reason or that — I’m afraid that’s when a society becomes fully driven by parasites ready to explode from their feasting. It’s simply too much.

This exploits a common trend. Parents look for solutions to school problems such as overcrowding and bullying. The worse conditions are, the more students will flow into these extremely cheap to manage, online schools. It’s another one of those instances where the dismantling of traditional social structures reaps large rewards on the very detractors helping to create the problem. It’s a time honored tradition in the war against collective well-being.

I’ve read that these groups often become aligned with poor school districts, forming an alliance of benefit to all but the kids. Do we really need to pretend that something of this nature is legitimate? Is that the hope we have for our children — to be placed in front of a computer at the earliest of ages, bathed in a creepy laptop light for the greater part of the day? It’s a conditioning method that will, no doubt, breed an even more docile worker in the future. A world without recess as the CEOs of companies like K12 frolic in the sun?

One can draw their own conclusions about the intentions of the myriad of think-tanks that come up with their own profitable solutions to our school problems. They serve up the rationales for this unraveling process. The arguments inevitably encourage the Charter School path. Don’t forget that nice loophole when you hear about these solutions — the ones that allow for private management of those Charter schools.

If only Rocky Canyon could swoop down and save the kids from the lurking Privateers.

Kathleen Wallace Peine welcomes reader response. She can be reached at: Read other articles by Kathleen.