New Mexico should encourage for-profit digital education

During the 2013 legislative session and Hanna Skandera’s “confirmation hearings,” the issues of digital learning and private sector involvement in education took center-stage. Legislation introduced by Rep. Mimi Stewart D-Albuquerque would have banned for-profit companies from certain education-related activities (the bill was vetoed by Gov. Martinez).

Another bill, this one introduced by Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, D-Las Cruces (also vetoed by the Gov.) would have stripped authority from the Secretary of Education to approve charter schools over the objections of the Public Education Commission (PEC).

The PEC opposed several charter schools in the 2012-2013 approval cycle including Connections Academy, a “virtual” school that is up and running as of Fall 2013. Concerns over digital learning played a lead role in the PEC’s decision to deny the school’s charter. Full-disclosure, I am on the Board of Directors of the Academy which was approved by the Secretary over the objections of the PEC.

As I argue in a new Rio Grande Foundation report on digital learning, policymakers should drop their opposition to both digital learning and for profit involvement in education and instead embrace their potential for the good of New Mexico’s children.

For starters, digital innovation has enhanced all of our lives. The explosion in inexpensive, readily-available, digital photography has enabled average people to take high quality pictures and experiment in ways that weren’t available just two decades ago.

America’s education monopoly has been slow to adapt to technological changes. This is one reason why K-12 spending has exploded nationwide over the past 30 years while educational results have remained stagnant. Unfortunately, New Mexico is 50th in the nation in graduation rates according to the authoritative Diplomas’ Count report. Our policymakers should embrace needed reforms and innovations rather than fighting them.

In terms of for-profit involvement in K-12 education, the profit-motive, if harnessed appropriately to the education system can provide significant benefits. As Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute notes:

The watchful eye of investors can lend for-profits a healthy discipline. The prospect of returns means that promising profit-seeking ventures can offer employees lucrative long-term opportunities and can tap vast sums through the private-equity markets. For-profits have a relentless, selfish imperative to seek out and adopt cost efficiencies.

Nonprofits, by contrast, have little incentive to become “early adopters” of cost-saving tools and techniques such as online instruction.

For-profits are already involved in provide transportation services, computer software and equipment, and a wide variety of other learning tools including textbooks. They are an integral and even unavoidable part of our education system that, with proper management and incentives, could be a boon for New Mexico’s children.

When it comes to embracing digital learning, New Mexico is in the middle of the pack according to the latest report card put together by Digital Learning Now, a national organization dedicated to the expansion of digital learning. Two states, Utah and Florida are “running away from the pack” in terms of embracing online learning.

Utah’s ground-breaking Statewide Online Education Program was established by the Utah Legislature in the 2011 General Session. The program enables eligible students to earn high school graduation credit through the completion of publicly funded online courses. It is a national model that all states should pursue when it comes to digital learning.

Florida too has fully-embraced the digital learning revolution. The state which has seen rapid improvement in 4th grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and been a model for education reformers nationwide (including New Mexico) has fully-embraced digital learning.

Rather than being afraid of and putting up barriers to digital learning and for-profits, Florida policymakers have been updating and expanding their laws governing digital learning for more than a decade as technology and the marketplace of digital providers continues to evolve and expand.

The way Americans access and use information is changing rapidly. Our schools must keep up or our children will be left behind in the 21st Century economy. It is time to embrace digital learning and for-profits in education. We have nowhere to go but up.

Paul Gessing is the President of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility