Portland’s superintendent smackdown

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk. BDN photo by Seth Koenig.

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk. BDN photo by Seth Koenig.

Portland Superintendent Emmanuel “Manny” Caulk got what can only and justly be described as a “smackdown” last week for trying to start an online-education program, run by a private corporation and paid for with public money, without the approval of the public.

I don’t know what’s more disturbing: Caulk’s botched attempt to bypass the school board, parents and taxpayers to launch his ill-conceived plan this fall, or that his motivation for doing so seems to have been purely financial — a scheme to game the state’s system for distributing education aid, using students like peas in a sidewalk shell con.

Caulk unveiled the outlines of his plan during a school board workshop on Sept. 2. The initiative would give middle and high school students the option of taking all their classes online, through a “virtual instruction” program provided by Pearson PLC — a giant multinational corporation, based in London, whose Baltimore-based subsidiary, Connections Education LLC, is one of the largest sellers of virtual-education products in the country.

Portland students already have that option: Maine Connections Academy, the state’s new virtual charter school, which also uses curricula, software and other educational materials and services sold by Connections Ed. Seven students reportedly ditched Portland’s school district for MCA this year, each effectively taking $7,000 worth of state aid with them — most of which ultimately ends up in Pearson’s pockets.

Portland’s program would have had “major similarities” to Maine Connections Academy, Caulk said, and was expressly created to try to lure those seven students, and their state aid, from the state’s e-school back to the city’s system. Caulk planned to pay Pearson $4,250 per e-pupil, and after covering about $750 in related expenses, he figured the district would be up two grand per kid.

Board members were taken aback. “Honestly, I don’t have a sense of what concretely I’m looking at,” said board member Justin Costa, as quoted by the Press Herald in a front-page story. “I feel like this is a pretty profound shift in how we provide education, and we’re being asked to outsource this….” Board members asked whether students currently enrolled in the district could also choose to take virtual classes, rather than the real ones, for some subjects or all of them.

Caulk refused to answer their questions at the workshop, saying he’d “digest” them and get back to the board later this month. But the Portland schools’ chief academic officer, David Galin, told board members the district’s policy is simple and clear: if online classes are available to some, they must be available to all.

Caulk reportedly told the board this “pilot program,” which did not yet have any students aboard, doesn’t need their approval anyway — it’s a “curriculum issue” under the administration’s sole purview.

That’s when Manny got smacked. The next day, Mayor Mike Brennan spoke out against the program, criticizing the idea of paying a private corporation to provide public education. State Education Commissioner Jim Rier did the math on what could happen if all Portland students could opt for online ed, and informed Caulk his district would stand to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in state funding.

By Thursday, the super scrapped his not-so-super plan and pledged to work with state lawmakers to pass a more equitable state-aid formula for districts that lose students to cyberspace.

This dust-up is done for now, but the war over virtual education in Maine has only just begun. Pearson and the other politically connected online-ed peddlers aren’t content to scoop up seven students here, five from another town, two or three in the rural district down the road. They’re banking on profiting from thousands of Maine kids in the years to come, the vast majority of whom likely don’t learn best by being isolated from their peers and human teachers, staring at a screen in search of wisdom.

It’s frightening how easily a highly respected (and paid) school official like Caulk will drink the e-Kool-Aid in a scramble to save a few thousand bucks. And scarier still that he almost got away with it.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.