Two New Reports Urge That Policy Makers Critically Examine Virtual Schools and Their Curriculum

April 2, 2004

“Knowledge Universe and Virtual Schools: Educational Breakthrough or Digital Raid on the Public Treasury?” by Gerald Bracey (George Mason University), and “The K12 Virtual Primary School History Curriculum: A Participant’s-eye View” by Susan Ohanian explore the workings of Knowledge Universe, or KU, a little-known but increasingly influential investment firm that supports a number of for-profit companies involved in education; and K12 Inc., a corporation that provides curriculum and related services to “virtual” charter schools.

Knowledge Universe is headed by Michael Milken, the former junk-bond promoter who spent two years in prison on charges of insider trading. K12 Inc. is headed by William Bennett, former secretary of education under President George H. W. Bush.

The Bracey analysis of KU warns that although KU has the potential for significantly influencing the nation’s public education system through its investment in publicly funded for-profit education activities, its role has not been carefully examined by policy makers. Bracey reports that KU is subject to far less scrutiny than public education institutions.

K12 provides “virtual” curriculum at taxpayer expense to students enrolled in “virtual” charter schools. Ohanian, a former teacher, reviewed K12 Inc.’s history curriculum for grades K-2. Ohanian reports that the K12 curriculum is unimaginative and inappropriate for its target audience.

“Throughout the curriculum, the lessons had the same structure: learning presented as stimulus and response; training children to parrot phrases they do not understand; offering rote responses to horrific events,” Ohanian writes.

According to Alex Molnar, director of the Education Policy Studies Laboratory, the Bracey and Ohanian reports are timely because “virtual” education proposals are drawing increasing interest in state legislatures.

Molnar commented, “It is important for policy makers to take a long hard look at service providers and the content of the programs provided. The Bracey and Ohanian reports suggest that there is considerable potential for abuse by for-profit providers of ‘virtual’ education.”

Taken together, the Bracey and Ohanian reports raise important questions about the policy implications of companies that significantly influence public education policy and practice, but that operate with relatively little public oversight.

“The costs and the potential benefits of ‘virtual’ education have yet to be carefully calculated or considered,” Molnar says. “The time to do so is now before more states adopt or expand “virtual” school legislation. This very necessary background work is essential if interests of taxpayers and students are to be protected.”

Gerald Bracey
George Mason University
(703) 317-1716

Susan Ohanian
(802) 425-4201

Alex Molnar, Professor and Director
Education Policy Studies Laboratory
(480) 965-1886