A group of digital education experts is recommending that Maine create an online directory to help school districts and teachers find, choose and write reviews of digital learning resources.

But the 17-member group’s report and “digital learning strategy” is most notable for what it doesn’t recommend: the sweeping policy changes advocated by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, which seek to remove a range of state restrictions and limitations on how digital learning products are accessed, supervised and funded.

The six-page report — overseen and composed by Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen — suggests that Gov. Paul LePage’s administration has slowed its effort to implement the controversial provisions of the Bush foundation’s Digital Learning Now! initiative. The report, including a detailed digital education strategy, was supposed to have been turned in to LePage and the Legislature on Jan. 4, but wasn’t filed until Feb. 22. It remained under wraps until acquired by the Portland Press Herald through a public records request.

The administration originally intended to unveil the strategy with a bang at a Washington, D.C., conference hosted by Bush last November. Instead, an unfinished plan was turned in without so much as a whimper in Augusta, where key legislators are not even aware of its existence.

Bowen said Wednesday that the report was “a work in progress” and that he intended to reconvene the study group after the legislative session ends this summer.

“Plans change. That is the nature of this work,” he said. “We’re taking our time and continuing to work on a number of fronts.”

The report makes no explicit references to the Digital Learning Now! standards, and instead calls for the creation of “a curated digital learning directory” that would help educators find, review and compare courses, professional development opportunities, and other digital learning resources. One of the virtues of this approach is its low cost; the report noted that expanding access to digital learning resources “will almost certainly have to be done within existing resources.”

“We were very careful not to rubber-stamp any kind of program or specific approach,” said Bath education consultant Chris Toy, who served on the group. “Looking at the individuals involved, that would not have been possible. Nobody is a wallflower.”

The report contains no references to full-time virtual schools — which LePage has championed — and the proposed online directory would not handle them.

“My vision was looking at how we educators in Maine can be out there to lead, direct and improve on digital learning opportunities,” said Michael Richards, president of the Association of Computer Technology Educators of Maine, “and not focus on virtual schools where accountability, content and instruction may suffer.”

There has been increased focus on digital learning since 2011, when the Legislature approved the creation of charter schools, including full-time virtual schools, where students receive most or all of their education at home, via computer. The nation’s two largest online education companies — K12 Inc. and Connections Learning — have each been seeking to manage virtual charters in Maine, but have thus far been rebuffed by the state’s charter school commission. Virtual charters — which are paid for by taxpayers — have a poor record nationally, and in other states, K12 Inc. has faced investigations and the revocation of charters for some of its schools.

In party-line votes Monday, the Legislature’s Education Committee recommended passage of bills that would put a moratorium on virtual charter schools and would effectively ban for-profit charters. If passed by the full Legislature, both are expected to face the governor’s vetoes, which they would have difficulty overcoming.

Maine’s Digital Learning Advisory Group was ordered into being in February 2012 by separate acts of the governor and the Legislature, which at the time was controlled by Republicans.

LePage’s executive order of Feb. 1, 2012, directed the Education Department to develop a strategic plan for digital learning “consistent with and organized around the 10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning” promoted nationwide by Bush’s foundation. An investigation by the Maine Sunday Telegram, published Sept. 2, revealed the executive order had been ghost-written by staffers at Bush’s foundation, which receives funding from online education companies.

The “10 elements” include dozens of specific policy directives that called for states to eliminate restrictions on online student-to-teacher ratios, enrollments, class sizes, budgets, providers, or the number of credits a student can earn; avoid regulating “seat time” in classes, or require that online providers, their teachers, or their governing board members be located in the state; and pay for the online classes of all students, including homeschoolers and those in private schools.

LePage chose to issue his order on Feb. 1 because it was the day the foundation had designated as the first “national digital learning day.” Staff members at Bush’s foundation were thrilled with the order. In an email to Bowen, one said it made Maine “the first to issue an executive order on the 10 elements, which is spectacular.”

While LePage’s order directed the Education Department to create a stakeholder group and “develop a strategic plan” for digital learning, legislators passed a law three weeks later that further defined the group and its membership. Seven of the seats were reserved for specific organizations, including those representing principals, school boards, unionized teachers, superintendents and parent-teacher organizations. The other 10 experts were appointed by Bowen.

At the outset in March 2012, Bowen expected the foundation would play a major behind-the-scenes role. In a memo to foundation deputy director Deirdre Finn, Bowen wrote that the “next steps” would be for the foundation to write grants to pay for the study group’s work and for a “contract with a company or individual to manage the project and write the plan.” He intended to release the plan at Bush’s Nov. 27-28 National Summit on Education Reform in Washington, D.C.

In an email response to Bowen, Finn expressed excitement at the prospect “for Maine to lead the nation on digital learning.”

Emails acquired by the Press Herald reveal that, throughout the spring and summer of last year, Bowen remained optimistic that the study group would endorse the foundation’s policy agenda. He conferred with the foundation regularly, asking it to survey how well Maine’s policies “stacked up to the DLN essential elements” and to “get someone up here” to answer questions for the group. As late as August, foundation personnel were offering to “map out an agenda for you.”

Bowen was bullish. “We need to make some big moves here, or at least aim for the fences on digital learning,” he wrote staff in regards to the digital study group July 5.

The effort appears to have stalled after the Telegram’s Sept. 2 report revealed the foundation’s involvement in digital policy making and its entanglements with online education companies. The day the story was published, Bowen wrote the study group members denying he was “part of a vast right-wing conspiracy to privatize Maine’s schools” or that the “now notorious” 10 elements were “a huge conspiracy driven by profit motives.”

Later that month, he exchanged emails with a consultant, Jay Collier, in which they narrowed the study group’s focus to four issues — quality control, training teachers in digital learning skills, equity of access across the state, and funding.  Bowen identified quality control as “issue number one” on account of “all the press recently” and suggested paying for digital learning might require a “state-level approach” similar to the laptop program.

Study group members Richards and Toy both said the group had been presented with the Digital Learning Now’s “10 elements” in summary form but not with the foundation’s more contentious policy recommendations. “We used them as the basis for our initial online discussions, which generated a lot of dialog among members,” Richards said.

“It was presented to us, but as information, not as a template,” said Toy, adding that Bowen and his staff never tried to pressure the group to adhere to the “elements,” many of which focus on removing limitations and regulations on online course offerings and how taxpayers pay for them.

Funding from Bush’s foundation apparently never materialized, and the group met in person only twice. Bowen wrote the rough draft of the study group’s report himself but missed the statutory Jan. 4 deadline to present it to lawmakers and the governor by nearly two months.

“It is the initial thinking of the group and it laid out a basic direction and some next steps,” Bowen said in an email to the Press Herald on Tuesday night, adding that delays were partly due to a desire to see how things played out in the awarding a new contract for the state’s school laptop program. “We are currently in the process of developing a more detailed plan with timelines and deliverables.”

The preliminary report has languished for months. Neither LePage nor Bowen have publicized its completion, and members of the Legislature’s Education Committee learned of its existence from a reporter this week, even though they have a copy in their files.

“I don’t know the report or what it says, so I can’t comment on it,” said committee co-chairman Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay.

The governor’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, referred requests for comment to Bowen.
On Tuesday, Richards and Toy were both unsure whether the group had been disbanded, and each said their work was unfinished. Richards wasn’t aware that a report had been submitted to the Legislature on the group’s behalf and asked a reporter if he could obtain a copy. 

“I don’t consider this the final report,” he said after reviewing it, adding that there was “more work to be done.”

Bowen agreed and said the report is not the sort of “strategic plan” envisioned in LePage’s executive order. He said he planned to reconvene the working group to lay out such a plan, and that the Digital Learning Now! policies were still under consideration. “We still plan to look at the DLN pieces and see where we are relative to those,” he said.

“So what you have is a work in progress,” the commissioner added. “There is more work to come, and quite a bit [of] it.”

Colin Woodard — 791-6317
[email protected]

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