By CATHY FRYE – I got curious and took a little gander today at the Arkansas Public School Center’s website. And yep, there it was – APSRC’s latest attempt to help its digital “learning” providers by – once again – taking advantage of the pandemic’s effects on public schools.
Pay attention, folks: This partnership – announced today – involves the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, the Arkansas Department of Education and an outfit known as Lincoln Learning Solutions. This partnership will affect how public schools operate during the 2020-2021 school year.
APSRC and the Arkansas Department of Education are endorsing a digital learning provider that is currently under investigation by the Pennsylvania State Auditor General’s Office.
Why an investigation? Because a five-year audit revealed that Lincoln Learning Solutions had received more than $110 million in taxpayer dollars. Now, Arkansas’ parents and schools are about to get sucker-punched in a similar fashion.
You can also be sure that someway, somehow, APSRC Executive Director Scott Smith will also
find a way to profit from this. Smith does not believe in MOUs that offer no benefit to his Walton-backed
empire – er, I mean, “non-profit” organization.
I dealt with digital-provider “representatives” – not educators but salesmen – for three years. They expected free vendor booths at each APSRC conference. They also expected to be wined and dined on APSRC’s tab. Initially, they got what they wanted via a grant awarded to APSRC’s teaching and learning department. But when the money ran out, they still expected to be wooed and catered to. And Smith didn’t seem to mind, which tells me that APSRC also was making money by supporting these digital providers.
APSRC has been trying for years – well before my time there – to sell this digital-learning crap to Arkansas schools. Problem is, this crap, aside from being crap, has been too pricey even for the better-off districts.
And yet here they go again. Per APSRC’s “AR Ready for Digital Learning” webpage.
APSRC, in partnership with the Arkansas Department of Education and Lincoln Learning Solutions, is launching a statewide online learning plan to serve all Arkansas schools for the 2020-21 school year. This pilot program provided at no cost to schools includes:
- School staff can enroll their students, grades K-12, in Lincoln Learning online courses using the registration process that will soon be made available.
- Course content is accessed from Lincoln’s Learning Management System (LMS) or can be uploaded onto a school’s own licensed LMS if compatible.
- In addition to videos and documents available to train teachers on how to use the courses, webinars will be announced soon (and recorded for future viewing). Also, there will be on-site training available for teachers from both Lincoln and APSRC staff.
- Teachers will be given access to a vast digital library on the Lincoln LMS (Buzz) that will serve as a resource for searchable content/learning objects (specific instructions will be included in the teacher training)
- An informational webinar will be available at 1:30 pm, Wednesday, June 10. Topics will include:
- Program details and overview
- Training schedule and options
- Registration process and timeline
- More information about webinars and training will be posted soon.
- Information about Lincoln Learning, including course catalogs, sample course schedules, and teacher training materials and videos can be found via this link: http://info.lincolnlearningsolutions.org/apsrc
The term “pilot program” is your first clue that this will not go well. Remember the virtual-learning pilot program, known as TechStart? Remember the Summit Learning pilot program? Remember all the hoopla? Remember the complaints that followed? Heard anything about these programs in the past year?
But let’s take a moment to focus on Lincoln Learning Solution’s shady practices so that we know what to ask when we make the obvious calls to our public-education leaders.
According to the Beaver County Times, State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale had this to say in a story posted on April 17, 2019:
“My audit of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School found that more than $110 million of taxpayer money the school received was going directly to Lincoln Learning Solutions for curriculum services which were repeatedly delayed,” DePasquale said in a release Wednesday. “I want to see how much public funding this nonprofit receives, how much of it is spent on helping students, and how much goes to salaries and administrative costs.”
Based on recent IRS forms, a substantial amount of Lincoln Learning Solutions’ revenues are from PA Cyber, DePasquale said.
“Taxpayers deserve a full accounting of every education dollar going to this nonprofit corporation,” he said, noting that his office is requesting documents from Lincoln Learning. “I want to ensure that every available taxpayer dollar is going into the classroom, where it can most help students.”
The story went on to offer a little background:
Lincoln Learning Solutions, which was formed in 2005, develops online curriculum for institutions such as the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. It was formerly known as the National Network of Digital School and was founded by former PA Cyber head Nick Trombetta.
Here’s a link to the news release issued by the state auditor general that same day.
According to a Sept. 22, 2016, story by the Ellwood City Ledger, the five-year audit revealed eight troubling issues:
- The board and administration failed to govern transactions involving millions of dollars, some of which “may have” violated the charter school law and state ethics act.
- PA Cyber leadership neglected to properly oversee curriculum and management services provided by the National Network of Digital Schools, the Rochester-based company created by Trombetta to provide curriculum to PA Cyber that has since rebranded itself as Lincoln Learning Solutions (LLS).
- PA Cyber’s deal with another Trombetta-created entity, the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center, on a pre-paid lease and subsequent lease conversion was “fiscally irresponsible” and “a poor use of public funds” that cost PA Cyber $1.4 million in interest payments.
- PA Cyber “may have” improperly provided college tuition reimbursements of about $32,000 for former board President Dave Jaskiewicz’s daughter, who was a PA Cyber student at the time. (The state ethics commission did not pursue the matter.)
- There were possible ethical violations and conflicts of interest when PA Cyber’s board approved a $1.8 million contract with a computer services company owned by one of the board members.
- PA Cyber failed to monitor its virtual classroom attendance from 2011 to 2016.
- PA Cyber’s poor document management, overseen by LLS at the time, led to incomplete and missing teacher evaluations.
- Laptops given to students were not collected when those students left PA Cyber or graduated.
I’ve been unable to find updates on the state auditor’s probe. Regardless, the Arkansas Department of Education, APSRC, with, I’m sure, Governor Asa Hutchinson’s blessing, have decided that profit matters more than public education, even when it’s the taxpayers paying for “services” they don’t want for their students.
Lincoln Learning Solutions issued a news release today announcing its partnership. ADE Secretary Johnny Key is quoted.
“This is a natural partnership and we are ready to get their schools access to the digital content they need to be back open in August under as normal of circumstances as possible, which is one of their governor’s goals,” Bob Clements, Lincoln Learning Solutions CEO, said.
In presenting the details of the initiative to its 1,054 public schools, Commissioner of
Education, Johnny Key, told teachers and administrators that, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Arkansas made a seamless transition, even though it may not have felt that way.
“Arkansas was definitely ahead of the pack. We know we’ve missed some things…but I think it’s also important that we focus on what we’ve learned that will help us do better and be better prepared, and more nimble in meeting the needs of all students in the future,” Keys said.
During the presentation, Division of Secondary and Elementary Education officials said they expect all districts to move to some type of blended-learning system, which would include a learning management system, digital content aligned to grade-level standards, access to devices, and connectivity to support synchronous or asynchronous learning. Officials said schools that already had a blended-learning system in place were able to adapt much faster than schools that didn’t.
Here is the press release in full.
Call your school districts. Reach out to your school boards. Make sure your teachers and admins are informed. I plan to share this tonight with the North Little Rock School District leadership. Ask journalists to look into Lincoln Learning’s background. Make your voices heard.