This article originally appeared in The Progressive. It has been slightly edited here.
Silicon Valley-based Rocketship is a charter school chain with a bevy of star backers that has reported sky-high student achievement and recently landed a $12.6 million grant from Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education. But beyond the hype is a galaxy of problems, including plummeting test scores, litigation and allegations of student mistreatment.
Co-founded by the brain behind Yahoo’s first advertising platform, John Danner, and Teach For America alum, Preston Smith, Rocketship has attracted the support of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists whose fortunes were made disrupting industries with tech: Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and early Apple investor Arthur Rock, among others.
Rocketship has grown over the last decade into a network of thirteen schools around the country, serving nearly 8,000 kindergarten through fifth-grade students who are overwhelmingly poor and Latino. The venture proclaims it is “dedicated to eliminating the achievement gap” with a business model which, Education Week explains, “replace[s] one credentialed teacher per grade with software and an hourly-wage aide, freeing up $500,000 yearly per school.”
Rocketship’s initial results were promising. But the charter chain’s sky-high student outcomes have not held up: A 2014 analysis by the California Department of Education found that in the previous five years the number of Rocketship students scoring at the “proficient” level or above on California state tests fell by 30 percentage points in English and 14 percentage points in math.
Critical news reports questioned whether Rocketship was struggling to bring its game-changing “blended learning” model to scale. Preston Smith, the charter’s CEO, was still on the defensive last year when he told National Public Radio, “It’s not about opening multiple schools.”
But strategic pivots are common in Silicon Valley, and Rocketship is no exception. “It’s exhilarating. Things change dramatically year to year,” a Rocketship principal told PBS in 2012.
Now, with the help of $12.6 million over five years, the U.S. Department of Education is investing in Rocketship’s “replication and expansion.”
What does launching more Rocketships say about Betsy DeVos’ policy agenda?
"'Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department,' says Wernher von Braun." --Tom Lehrer
If DeVos were candid, she might admit that Rocketship’s blended learning model suits her political agenda because it weakens Democrats’ loyal constituency: labor. It also fits with her lifelong goal to privatize public services and shrink government. Imagine DeVos doing to education what her brother, Erik Prince, did with war when he founded Blackwater.
“Ed-tech and privatization are two sides of the same coin,” San Jose State University associate professor of education Roxana Marachi told me.
Marachi spoke at the Network for Public Education Conference in early October about the intersection of privatization, technology, and health in schools. “Privatization is a vehicle to drive untested ed-tech programs into schools and to repackage and sell them elsewhere,” she said. “Children serve as unpaid beta-testers while public funding for tech contracts gets siphoned back up to Silicon Valley."
As a billionaire campaign donor, DeVos never had to explain her huge political donations. Being a Secretary of Education is different; doling out federal dollars requires explanations. The Department of Education’s official responseto Rocketship’s grant application—that it “assists youth in developing social emotional learning” and has “not had any significant student safety issues”—reflects a shared agenda to privatize public education and to reduce the size of the labor force, while overlooking serious concerns.
For years education activists and district officials have been raising alarms about Rocketship’s negative effect on student well-being. Students just five to ten years old sit in front of computers for 80 to100 minutes per day. The schools track, to the minute, the time that each elementary school child spends online, and their percentage of “goals” reached. That screen time is so valued by Rocketship that there's almost no time for art or play. Students are even discouraged from taking bathroom breaks. One former teacher told NPR, "I've never had second-graders pee their pants except for at Rocketship.”
A family physician in Santa Clara County with patients in Rocketship schools wrote the school board a letter noting a pattern of urinary tract infections and extreme stress.
Parents and former employees have also raised concerns about safety due to a student to teacher ratio around thirty-seven to one, and about the school’s extreme no-talking policy called “Zone Zero” they claim “amounted to hours of enforced silence.”
Another reason DeVos claims Rocketship deserves federal funding to support expansion is that it “has not been denied [a charter approval] or shut down.” This is hardly high praise. The claim obscures a controversial history in local communities where Rocketship has tried to expand.
In Nashville, where Rocketship has three charter schools, an audit found they were not providing services to children with disabilities or English Language Learners, and not providing free uniforms to homeless students.
The state of Tennessee denied Rocketship’s application for another charter school in Nashville, saying it came up short in every category. Morgan Hill and Contra Costa County in California have denied Rocketship approval in their districts, but the State Board of Education overturned those decisions.
In the heart of Silicon Valley, six different school districts have sued the Santa Clara County Board of Education for reversing local denials of Rocketship charters. “Local control” of public schools is a hallmark of California, but charters can appeal local district decisions to the County or the State Boards of Education. Rocketship withdrew 16 of 20 applications rather than face denial.
Do these details even matter? The litany of litigation and the well-documented problems that Rocketship has encountered would ordinarily make it a surprising recipient of government largesse in the form of taxpayer funded grants. But the Trump Administration does not function ordinarily, and charter schools are not expected to play by ordinary rules.
As Gordon Lafer of the Economic Policy Institute wrote in his paper on Milwaukee’s Rocketship school, “the very curricular model that Rocketship employs is shaped not simply by what is good for kids but also, in part, by what will generate profits for investors and fuel the company’s ambitious growth plans.”
Even CEO Smith admitted his own hand-wringing over this to EdWeek three years ago. “It puts us in a conundrum of do you continue to focus on innovation, and try to get it right, or do you actually start to push toward scale?”
Rocketship’s request for an expansion and replication grant makes its decision clear. And the Department of Education, in granting it $12.6 million, seems to agree.