Technology

Bill Bennett: The Education of an E-School Skeptic


By Alexandra Starr Bill Bennett is no stranger to conversions. The college student who flirted with joining the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society and went on a blind date with Janis Joplin grew up to become one of the most ideological members of Ronald Reagan's Cabinet. Now the former Education Secretary is repositioning himself -- again. The same man who once cast a skeptical eye on the efficacy of computers in education, writing in his book The Educated Child that there was "no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly improve learning," is now plunging into the burgeoning online education market.

Bennett, 58, is chairman of K12, a national school that offers a complete primary and secondary education online. His role: reviewing lesson plans, meeting with potential investors, recruiting board members, and weighing in on senior hiring decisions. He devotes about 10 days per month to the project.

BASIC OR PREMIUM? K12 will begin enrolling students from kindergarten through second grade in the late spring, with plans to add three more grades each year. Its target audience is the nation's 1.5 million to 2 million homeschoolers, and Bennett hopes to enroll at least 100,000 full-time by 2005. The school will provide daily lesson plans and materials for a full school year in every core subject at a cost of about $1,000. If families want direct contact with a K12 teacher and all the essential computer gear, they will have to pay $5,000 per year.

While K12 will focus on selling its wares to homeschooled children, the company's ambitions extend beyond that market. K12 intends to sell software to public and private educational institutions, and there are plans to form virtual charter schools in Pennsylvania, California, Texas, and Alaska later this year.

Bennett also believes K12's $50 diagnostic tests in math and reading will appeal to parents who want to gauge their children's mastery of those subjects. If parents find their kids aren't testing at the level they deem appropriate, they can supplement their children's education with K12 software. "I'd like to be for the next generation what the Encyclopedia Britannica was a couple of generations back," says Bennett. "No home was without it."

DOUBTERS UNITE. That zeal stands in stark contrast to Bennett's initial hesitation to join the company. When Lowell Milken and Ron Packard, executives at education investment company Knowledge Universe, approached Bennett in November, 1999, about heading up K12, Bennett insisted that he would chair the company only if Yale computer-science professor David Gelernter, a fellow computer-in-the-classroom skeptic, signed on as the company's technical adviser.

"I've been an anti-cheerleader of computers in education," says Gelernter, who lost part of his right hand in 1993, when a package he received from the Unabomber exploded. "From what I've observed in schools, we'd be better off unplugging the computers and throwing them out." Bennett says that Gelernter's presence on the K12 team reassured him that the company would emphasize old-school academic achievement rather than simply training kids in the newest computer technology.

While the marquee names of Bennett and Gelernter have attracted substantial attention to K12 in media and business circles, the company's success is far from assured. For one thing, the teach-your-own-kids market isn't likely to be a cash cow. "The homeschooling market simply isn't huge," says Peter Stokes, executive vice-president of Eduventures.com, a Boston-based outfit that provides research to education-related businesses. "Even if K12 captures 10% of the market, you're talking about just 150,000 students." Bennett's venture also recalls former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop's foray into cyberspace with his online health-care company, drkoop.com, which has failed to live up to expectations.

CROWDED FIELD. Still, some online education analysts say Bennett's venture boasts solid prospects. "It's a big-time opportunity," says Michael Moe of Merrill Lynch. "There are very few brand names in this market. Bennett's background as Secretary of Education and his books could position him to become one of the ruling brands."

There is no dearth of companies vying for a foothold in the K-12 e-learning market, which garnered $1.3 billion in private investment last year, according to Merrill Lynch's estimates. Class.com, which is affiliated with the University of Nebraska and claims former Senator Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) as a board member, already runs an online high school, while Baltimore's Calvert School also provides online instruction from kindergarten through grade 8.

On the testing front, companies like Smarterkids.com and LeapFrog purport to measure everything from a toddler's language skills to a seventh grader's proficiency in algebra. Book publishers such as Houghton Mifflin are beginning to create electronic versions of their texts, and their deep roots in the American educational system could provide a leg up on companies like K12. "Publishers have a long history of not doing anything too quickly," says Keith Gay of Thomas Weisel Partners. "But they have the advantage that they already distribute their products to a hundred thousand schools."

K12 could also find itself competing for market share with corporations such as Scientific Learning, which sells software aimed at helping kids develop their reading skills, and Riverdeep, which supplies supplemental math coursework to schools, both online and via CD-ROM.

MILKEN'S ROLE. K12 was formed in February of last year, when Bennett signed up as chairman and Packard became CEO. Knowledge Universe, which is backed by former junk-bond king Michael Milken, provided $10 million in seed money. The partnership could prove controversial. Bennett has been a staunch advocate of placing greater heft on traditional values in American culture and made his fortune penning The Book of Virtues and a spin-off television series. Milken is a convicted felon who served time for securities fraud in the early '90s. Still, Bennett sees no discrepancy between his image as a conservative moralist and Milken's investment in K12. "I don't feel any discomfort," he says. "What I'm being invited to do is create a school, and no one is putting any restrictions on me at all."

Packard is enthusiastic about Bennett's participation in the company. "He's exactly the person you want overseeing K12," he says. Some industry analysts, however, caution that Bennett's high profile will not be an unalloyed asset. "Having a prominent personality at the helm can have a downside," says EduVentures.com's Stokes. "When the conversation ends up focusing on Bennett, it can eclipse the business."

Bennett is one of the country's strongest boosters of a traditional academic syllabus, and K12 will reflect his priorities. He plans to read through each assignment, which he says will adhere to the back-to-basics principles he laid out in The Educated Child. Computers and Internet connections will be the primary mechanism of delivering coursework to students -- but neither Bennett nor Gelernter intend to make computer literacy a central component of K12's program.

BUSH BONUS? Families will receive workbooks, textbooks, and notebooks through the mail when they sign up for courses, and in the early grades, students will spend no more than 25% of their time in front of a computer screen. "The computer's job is to stand tactfully in the background and keep the day moving smoothly," says Gelernter, who adds: "We don't want to graduate a bunch of kids who are whizzes at typing."

Bennett says there is nothing specifically in President Bush's education plans that will benefit K12 -- although, if vouchers, increased funding for charter schools, and educational savings accounts become law, as Bush proposes, the company could be on the receiving end of federal cash. But Bennett, who would not reveal how much he is being paid by K12, believes the Bush Administration's focus on annual testing and accountability can only benefit his online enterprise. "That's because, at the end of the day, people will say, 'O.K., we're for standards, we're for outcomes,'" Bennett predicts. "And then they will ask: 'Now how do we get there?'" Bennett, of course, hopes K12 will be part of the answer. Starr is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.


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