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“Failure” Irrelevant: Virtual Schools and Accountability-Immunity

by Jan Nespor & Rick Voithofer - 2016

Background. Virtual schools—free, state-funded, credit-awarding elementary and secondary schools offering curricula and programs exclusively online—are a rapidly expanding sector of U.S. education. Some of the largest of these schools have low graduation rates and receive “failing” rankings on state accountability metrics. They nonetheless flourish and grow, seemingly immune to sanctions that would be applied to traditional schools with similar ratings.

Purpose. Taking one of the largest virtual schools in the United States, Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), as a paradigmatic case, we examine how such immunity is produced.

Findings. The ECOT case requires us to problematize standard educational categories. Unlike the schools presupposed in state accountability systems, it stretches across an evolving set of integrally connection organizations and actors that together form something that is a public school, but also a for-profit business, a political actor, and a technology infrastructure. Drawing on a set of “analytic tactics," we analyze this form as an “assemblage” composed of multiple facets or “avatars” whose relations and boundaries change over time. Some avatars can generate profits, others are nonprofit; some are political actors that can influence their regulatory environments, other are barred from political activity; one avatar is confined to Ohio, another can move across state lines. Each avatar is legible to the state in terms of a different accountability regime. The way the state “sees” and assesses the assemblage as a whole depends on which avatar it focuses upon.

Implications. The case complicates standard notions of school and accountability by pointing to the multiplicity of state accountability frames and the abilities of certain assemblage forms to influence how the state sees them. It also raises issues of how new territorial configurations of schools (their expansion to the level of the state) are linked to policy agendas in and out of education. Finally, it contributes to our understanding of policy networks by pointing to ways that assemblage forms allow entities like the one ECOT is part of to extend themselves in space and time, generate new organizational forms, and mobilize political capital.


Public schools in the United States are usually punished, sometimes closed, if they receive consistently bad ratings from the state. Large, “virtual” schools—public schools offering programs and awarding credits and credentials exclusively online—offer an exception, often prospering in the face of such results. How does this happen? What allows such schools to flourish with ratings that would bring penalties to traditional schools?

To answer these questions, we examine the case of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT). With over 15,000 students, ECOT is the largest virtual school in Ohio, a state with one of largest populations of virtual school students in the United States (Miron, Gulosino, & Horvitz, 2014; Yost, 2013, p. 43). ECOT receives failing or “F” grades on state ratings and graduates around 40% of its students. Nevertheless, its enrollments continue to grow, it retains political support, and its funding and operating revenue continue to rise (Yost, 2013, p. 10). To be clear, ECOT is not typical of online education. Rather, we take it as “paradigmatic” (Flyvbjerg, 2006, pp. 232–233) of a category that dominates enrollments among virtual schools: large, public schools managed by for-profit Educational Management Organizations (EMOs).1

Other large, EMO-run virtual schools across the United States produce similarly poor ratings and low graduation rates (Fang, 2011; Innovation Ohio, 2011; Mencimer, 2011; Mild, 2013a; Miron et al., 2014; Molnar et al., 2014), yet like ECOT seem resistant to sanction.2 One recent report notes that:

Ohio’s six biggest cyber schools all got Fs on their state progress reports, meaning students learned nowhere near a year’s worth of material in a year of studying online. In Colorado, students at five of the six biggest cyber schools failed to make as much annual growth in math as peers around the state—often by yawning margins. In South Carolina, all four cyber charter high schools had academic growth ratings of ‘below average’ or ‘at risk,’ as did two of the three elementary schools.

Of the eight virtual schools with growth data in Pennsylvania, only one made adequate gains with students in both reading and math. And kids at Tennessee Virtual Academy made less academic progress this past year than students at every other school in the state. (Simon, 2013, p. 1)

As in ECOT’s case, such ratings and publicity have not slowed growth. Estimates of the number of fulltime K–12 students enrolled in virtual schools in the United States vary from 200,000 to 300,000 (Miron et al., 2013; Watson, Murin, Vashaw, Gemin, & Chris, 2013)—relatively small numbers in a national context (more children are home-schooled), but rapidly rising (Barbour & Reeves, 2009; Watson et al., 2013). State-level political support for virtual schools is strong.

Our interest is in this political support and the dearth of official opposition to the schools. We do not examine or critique ECOT’s performance, nor do we endorse or accept the validity of the ratings and accountability metrics in terms of which it fails. The question is simply how, given that such metrics are used by states to evaluate schools, does ECOT avoid punishment when it fails on them? The answer ECOT officials give is that the school serves a large number of high risk students coming from schools that have prepared them poorly and that it does no worse than these other schools (Ohio Department of Education, 2014; cf. Ahn, 2011). That may be, but such explanations buy no dispensations for conventional schools. Critics of the school reply that the large political contributions from the EMOs of ECOT and other virtual schools forestall state action against them. We address the role of contributions below, but at most this is a partial answer, missing other bases of support, and eliding the question of the mechanisms through which political support operates. Our account of immunity, by contrast, will center on the ways ECOT has evolved as part of a project to transform schooling as an institution.

The next section outlines a vocabulary and analytic strategy for making sense of this new institutional form. Subsequent sections describe ECOT’s evolving position in an assemblage that has made it, at once, a school, a business, a political actor, and a software infrastructure. ECOTs resistance to sanction has its sources in this reconfiguration of the school into something unlike what we traditionally understand schools to be.



A basic problem in studying entities like ECOT is that they can change faster than the core concepts we have for representing them (Sassen, 2013a, 2013b). When this happens, the familiar terms can obscure more than they reveal—key “relationships, connections . . . are completely missed through the use and naming of the object of study in terms of categories ‘natural’ to subjects’ preexisting discourses about them” (Marcus, 1998, p. 17). To make sense of ECOT’s seeming immunity from sanction, we need a way to talk about a “school” that is also a for-profit management firm, a multistate software vendor, and a political actor.

To do this we draw on Sassen’s (2013a) idea of “analytic tactics.” These are not fully developed methods, but provisional concepts used to disassemble “major categories,” like “school” and “accountability,” and discover what they “veil or obscure” (Sassen, 2013a, p. 79). We deploy a pair of such concepts: assemblage and avatar.

Assemblage is a much-used term with a number of definitions (cf. McFarlane, 2011 p. 23). In general, it refers to relationally constituted networks of people, texts, technologies, and organizations, but networks in which the links connecting elements are understood to be alive, forming, breaking, and reforming ties, in the process moving, hardening, or dissolving boundaries, and transforming the functions of the elements. Assemblages are thus “complex wholes composed through a diversity of parts that do not necessarily cohere into seamless organic wholes” (Anderson, Kearnes, McFarlane, & Swanton, 2012, p. 172).

Treating ECOT as one part of such a complex whole forces us to question how it is intermeshed with the other parts—how parts merge or separate, how the whole mutates and reconfigures itself over time, and how in doing so it slips across the accountability frames used by the state.

To address the last question, we treat the parts of the assemblage as potential avatars of the whole. In virtual environments, an avatar is a representation or artificial persona that allows participation in different socio-technical worlds (online games, virtual realities, etc.). We use it here to examine how the facets of an assemblage, although inseparably and integrally meshed with its other elements, can be treated by the state as legally, organizationally, and financially distinct. When the state focuses on one facet instead of assemblage as a whole, the facet becomes a functional avatar of the assemblage.

Avatars are consequential in that the worlds in which they operate are not online environments, but something similar to what Bourdieu (2005) calls “fields”: relational matrices that define the “rules of the game” in a system of practice such as education or business. Each field is held together by a specific type of capital, which Bourdieu (1986, p. 241) defined in a Marxian sense as “accumulated labor.” A traditional school, for example, might accumulate the labor of teachers and students in the form of high test scores and prestigious college placements; businesses can accumulate workers’ labor as profit, market share, and so forth. Those entities with the greatest volume or concentration of capital within their field have advantage over other entities in the field—the field “acts on [their] behalf” (Bourdieu, 2005, p. 76).

Using this lexicon, an assemblage consists of multiple avatars, each operating in a specific field. In some fields, the assemblage’s avatar has a lot of capital; in others the avatar is comparatively weak. The commonality is that all figure into the assemblage’s relation to the state, which is the source of the school’s funding and the EMO’s profit, the customer for the assemblage’s software, and the political entity that sets the terms of regulation and surveillance governing the assemblage’s operation. The trick, then, is to make the strong forms the ones the state focuses on when it looks in the assemblage’s direction.

Accountability, in this usage, is the process of making certain aspects of things visible for evaluation and control while pushing other facets or avatars into the background (Hopwood, 1990; Munro, 1996, p. 5). There are, from this perspective, multiple accountabilities or accountability regimes, each specific to a particular field, and each corresponding to a particular system of state surveillance and sanction. “The state,” in this view, is “a contradictory ensemble of practices and processes” (Aretxaga, 2003, p. 395), including a multiplicity of accountability regimes, that “interlock at different levels, sometime overlap in jurisdiction, and sometimes work independently or at cross purposes” (Young, 2004, p. 62). Accountability is not just a mechanism of “coercive” surveillance (Shore & Wright, 1997), it is also a heterogeneous space of operation which assemblages can exploit by making themselves legible to the state in terms of a particularly strong avatar.

Avatars in this sense belong to a category of entities that allow organizations to operate both within and outside state regulatory structures. Parallels include the shadow-banking sector, a “parallel financial universe” of organizations performing banking functions outside the regulatory frames applied to those the traditional banks (Kodres, 2013; Nesvetailova, 2014). Other analogous forms include the “Russian doll” system described in Mirowski’s (2013, p. 46) analysis of the neoliberal “thought collective,” and the organizational “replicants” and “aliases” in Barley’s (2010, p. 795) analysis of the institutional field created by American business to “corral” the government. Finally, Stark’s (1996, 2009) concept of “heterarchies”—“crosscutting network structures,” with “competing evaluative principles,” that form an “organization of diversity enacted through the friction of competing performance principles” (Stark, 2009, p. 19), describes an intra-organizational version of processes similar to some of those analyzed here.

Like Mirowski and Barley, we are interested in how multiple avatars function as “interlocking” or integrated systems for the “production” and “amplification” of political ideas (Barley, 2010, p. 795; Mirowski, 2013, p. 29, 45). We also see the differences across avatars as producing a dynamism that enables the assemblage “to mutate over time” while maintaining an “identity within change” (Mirowski, 2013, pp. 50, 52). Like Stark (1996) we are interested in how a “polyphony” of evaluative discourses allows ‘room for maneuver” (p. 20), in our case allowing avatars to shift the assemblage as a whole from one accountability frame to another.

The avatar concept differs from these cousins in that, unlike a shadow bank it does not slip outside regulatory frames but instead shuffles them, and unlike a Russian doll does not obscure its ties to other avatars of the assemblage, but instead shapes which one is used to regulate the assemblage as a whole. Finally, whereas Stark focuses on the effects of multiple accountability criteria within organizations, our interest is in assemblages consisting of multiple organizational, human, and technical avatars, working within a constellation of alternative rather than overlapping accountability regimes.

The key questions that this apparatus allows us to unfold center on its conditions of possibility, and mechanisms through which assemblages shift across fields or regimes. While concepts such as framing (Benford & Snow, 2000) and “policy narratives” (Fischer, 2003; Stone, 2002) may be useful for describing how particular kinds of avatars move in and out of a policy spotlight, our emphasis will be on the transformation and reassembly of schooling itself that makes such movement possible.

Our data are drawn from state audits, reports by foundations, news organizations, think tanks, and bloggers (in particular Greg Mild, of Plunderbund); websites tracking issues such as campaign contributions, as well as corporate reports, funding applications, and PowerPoint slides. We also draw on the webpages, press releases, and promotional videos produced by the assemblage itself (e.g., https://www.youtube.com/user/ECOTNews)—promotional material reflecting ECOT’s capacity, far greater than that of most public schools, to influence how it is visible to outsiders. What follows is a narrative account in the vein of actor network theory (Latour, 2005, pp. 120–140), that is, a “pattern explanation” (Kaplan, 1964), in which “something is explained when it is so related to a set of other elements that together constitute a unified system. We understand something by identifying it as a specific part in an organized whole” (Kaplan, 1964, pp. 333–334).

The sections that follow trace the ties that connect the protean forms of the assemblage as they mutate over time. First, we look at how ECOT came into being as a public school with a doppelganger—a private business performing key constitutive functions and accumulating the school’s past in the form of economic capital, profit. The second section examines how within a few years this capital allowed the emergence of a new avatar, a political actor making large contributions to state officials and interacting with national organizations and political leaders. The third section then looks at how, a few years on, other parts of the accumulated economic surplus are used to develop an avatar in the form of a software system that provides a new source of revenue—and generates a new doppelganger management organization of its own—that allows the assemblage to escape from the borders of Ohio to operate on a national scale.


ECOT is a charter school, created in 2000 by William Lager, a “former office supply company executive with no background in education” (Mencimer, 2011), who had also worked as an “executive agency lobbyist” helping “corporations do business with the government” (Lager, 2002, p. 34). State legislation in the late 1990s enabled school districts at the bottom of the state’s accountability ratings to sponsor such charter schools, and ECOT is chartered by the Lucas County school district, around Toledo. Its main office, however, has always been in Columbus, the state capital. It now enrolls around 15,000 students, drawn from 586 of the state’s 611 school districts (many of those districts rated highly by the state, Mild, 2013b).

Breakdowns of data are not available, but students undoubtedly enroll for a variety of reasons. ECOT characterizes them as “predominately at-risk students” (Yost, 2013), a term which in this context seems to refer to qualifying for the federal free and reduced lunch program, but may also include students fleeing bullying, dealing with pregnancies, and so forth (we discuss the meanings of “at-risk” further in the conclusion). Some of these groups may see test scores as of secondary importance in choosing a school (cf. Jacobsen & Saultz, 2013). In its annual report, ECOT simply describes itself as an “online public school” providing “a flexible, tuition-free alternative to traditional public education”:

A seven-member Board of Directors . . . control[s] the School’s one instructional/support facility staffed by three hundred forty-five (345) non-certified and six hundred forty-two (642) certificated personnel who provide services to 13,721 students.

The ECOT mission: To maximize academic growth for students seeking a non-traditional educational alternative through individualized instruction delivered by a highly effective faculty and staff. . . . taking students where they are and providing the educational opportunities, intervention and services to enable them to “close the gap,” and be on target to graduate, as well as to master the skills necessary in the 21st century. (Yost, 2013, p. ii)

As in many states, public charter schools in Ohio can be operated by for-profit education management organizations (EMOs), which are paid by the school for certain services. In ECOT’s case, Lager created an EMO, Altair Learning Management, at the same time he created the school, to provide it with:

a variety of services including management of personnel and human resources, the program of instruction, purchasing, strategic planning, public relations, financial reporting, recruiting, compliance issues, budgets, contracts, equipment and facilities. (Yost, 2013, p. ii)

These are core functions, not routine tasks—program of instruction, strategic planning, hiring, and so forth are partly constitutive of schools in a traditional sense. In shifting them to a different avatar, the assemblage makes itself visible to the state as two legally distinct organizations. One effect is to make it possible to consume public monies and extrude private capital. As detailed in a recent state audit, Altair receives about 4% of all ECOT revenues (except federal funding) and 5% of outstanding balances (about $3.6 million in 2013). A second effect is that it becomes possible to read the assemblage in two ways, as a business, or as a school, each associated with a distinct field and accountability frame. Seen as a school, the state’s standard school accountability metrics apply. As a private business, financial metrics apply.

The latter business avatar is the one the state seems to focus on, making that part of the assemblage the subject of a yearly financial audit, mentioning test scores but not using them for evaluation. This framing is not happenstance. As Lager (2002) explained in his autobiographical account of the school’s creation, he considered his lack of background and expertise in education irrelevant to the problems of creating and running a school:

The way I saw it, if you’ve got a good curriculum but the business isn’t working, you’re out of business. On the other hand, if you’ve got a good business and the curriculum is failing, you get another curriculum. Suppliers of educational services are everywhere. I had no anxiety about what we were going to teach the children. (p. 44)

ECOT-Altair was never just a school, then, but a kind of corporate venture. The division between public and private was blurred from the start. As Lager (2002) explains, he had no hardware, software, or curriculum, and depended on speculative investment from technology firms. A press release from the time of the school’s opening describes ECOT as “the result of a public-private partnership funded by the state of Ohio and corporate sponsors, including Compaq Computers, Xerox Corporation, and Sprint Telecommunications” (BusinessWire, 2000). These ties evolved over the first years of ECOT’s existence (for example, at one point it outsourced certain functions and personnel to Xerox, later reabsorbing them), though as we explain later, Lager was soon in the software business himself. One early move was to convince Xerox Corporation officials that by giving the school trade credit they would position themselves:

as the innovators of the first K–12 Intranet secure server. We would get one of the best corporations in the world behind us. . . . Once Xerox was in, it was hard for others not to come along. Compaq signed on as our computer supplier. . . . We arranged trade payables as we could not wait any longer: phone system, furniture, copy machine, and other necessary equipment. (Lager, 2002, pp. 49-50)

This is school-making as a leveraged business deal. Lager (2002) recounts that Xerox invested almost $2 million in this fashion before the school opened and provided the basic technical infrastructure for the school during its first years. ECOT-Altair also drew on corporate analytics to plan its strategies. For example, a Xerox Global Systems PowerPoint presentation on “Lean Six Sigma” from 2004 (labeled “confidential,” though now accessible on the Internet) uses ECOT as an exemplary case and explains that the school “approached us with a clear objective: to streamline their enrollment process and increase its capacity to enable maximum growth and increased revenue” (Stephens, 2004).

Similarly, when making a case for ECOT’s continued support, the strategy of foregrounding its virtues as a business become paramount. When asked to explain ECOT’s good standing with the state despite poor ratings, for example, a school spokesperson pointed to its efficiency of delivery—that ECOT costs less than half per pupil as a traditional school. “We spend less than half of [the average per-pupil expenditure in the state’s urban districts] and achieve average to above average results” (quoted in Bloom & O’Donnell, 2012).3

Our argument is not that observers think ECOT is just a business, but that in key contexts it is seen and treated as a business, legible in terms of “financial transparency and viability” (Finn, Hentges, Petrilli, & Winkler, 2009, p. 16). If the school avatar were the one scrutinized, ECOT’s test results might be damaging. If the business avatar is foregrounded, as it is in state audits, the focus becomes the assemblage’s “internal control over financial reporting and on compliance with other matters required by government auditing standards” (Yost, 2013, p. 3). Given the greater prominence of the business frame for the state, it is unsurprising that the only instance we can find in which ECOT attracted substantial negative attention and sanction from the state was in its first year of operation, when an audit found that the school had enrolled ineligible students (and had problems in other areas of management and record-keeping). ECOT was forced to repay over a million dollars as a result of the audit.4

Finally, an even more influential effect of the business avatar’s role in the assemblage is the ability to accumulate profit over time and spend it on things other than ECOT. The next section examines one area of investment—state politics.


The school and business avatars enable the assemblage to operate simultaneously in two fields and to influence which of those serves as the official accountability frame through which the state views the whole. As Perrow (1986) argues, however, organizations do not only adjust to, or position themselves in, existing fields or environments, they try to “control and manipulate” them (p. 188). Barley (2007, 2010) makes a similar point: We cannot understand institutional politics without grasping that “organizations alter and even create their environments” (p. 214). The problem for conventional public schools is that they usually lack the access, money, and allies that this kind of environment-shaping requires. Assemblages like ECOT-Altair, on the other hand, can generate economic capital and convert it into political capital in at least three ways. One is through people such as the founder, William Lager, who can act as avatars in political fields, making campaign contributions and developing relationships with political figures. A second is through strategic alliances of the assemblage with political networks advancing supportive agendas (e.g., the marketization of state institutions). The third is through generating side effects that make the assemblage politically useful to influential state and national actors.

First, the assemblage translates public funding for education into private returns that can be recycled as political contributions. Direct contributions are easiest to track. The ability of ECOT-Altair to generate profits allows it to recycle part of that surplus back to elected officials who shape ECOT’s funding, define its regulatory framework, and audit its activity. William Lager’s role as a contributor to political campaigns expanded as ECOT grew. After five years in the $20,000–$30,000 range, Lager’s political contributions increased by five or six orders of magnitude for the 2006 election, and more recently have run over $200,000 per year. The vast majority has gone to Republican candidates, including the current state auditor (Mild, 2011, 2013b).5

Such contributions can directly influence officials to show favor to a firm or industry (cf. Beyerlein & Hershey, 2011)—an accusation made in the 2014 campaign for Ohio state auditor in connection with the treatment of virtual schools.6 But contributions can also work as means for gaining “access” to legislators (e.g., Hernandez, 2010), or supporting politicians already committed to actions or inactions favorable to one’s interests (McChesney, 2002). They can also be facets of long-running efforts to create multiplex ties to political groups or individuals.

For an example of the last type of influence, in 2001, the Ohio State Auditor, Jim Petro, had issued the report (mentioned at the end of the previous section), criticizing the business and accounting practices of the then-newly created ECOT, and requiring it to repay the state a large amount of money (Petro, 2001). In 2006, when Petro was serving as the Ohio Attorney General, and running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, he received $35,000 in contributions from Altair and another $10,000 from Lager as an individual (see Willard & Oplinger, 2006). Although he did not win the governorship, Petro was invited to give the 2007 commencement address to ECOT’s graduating class, joining a number of prominent Republican politicians who have done so, including former Florida governor and national virtual school advocate, Jeb Bush, and Ohio’s current governor, John Kasich. Finally, in 2011, having been appointed Chancellor of the Ohio State University system by the newly elected Kasich (also a recipient of large contributions from Lager and Altair), Petro selected Lager’s “IQity” software platform (another avatar of the assemblage, discussed in the next section) as the commercial educational technology infrastructure for “ilearnOhio,” the state’s “comprehensive elearning platform” (College of Education and Human Ecology—OSU, 2013). Such cascades of ties illustrate the assemblage’s abilities to produce and deploy political capital not available to traditional public schools.

Focusing on the contributions of a single assemblage, and on contributions alone, however, is misleading. If contributions give the virtual schools a means to influence the environment made up of legislators and regulators, a second means of generating political capital operates by changing the discursive environment in which the legislators themselves operate. The regulatory/legislative environment that ECOT faces is shared by other virtual schools, including ECOT’s rival for enrollments, the Ohio Virtual Academy, part of a national company, K12 Inc., which employs “39 lobbyists around the country . . . to work for state and local policies that would help expand the use of virtual learning” (Davis, 2013). Another Ohio-based, for-profit EMO, White Hat Management, cumulatively contributed around $2 million to political campaigns between 2004 and 2012 (Davis, 2013).

The collective lobbying efforts of such groups take place in a policy space also being shaped by conservative political groups and foundations intent on marketizing public education and other social services. Much of this effort has been funneled through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group which brings legislators from around the country together with representatives of business and conservative interests to produce template legislation promoting a socially conservative and pro-business agenda, including a larger private role in schooling, and the promotion of virtual schooling in particular. For example, ALEC has offered a "Virtual Public Schools Act" template since 2005 (Fang, 2011). In Ohio, where 43% of state legislators are ALEC members, a number of bills have been modeled on ALEC templates, including 2011’s House Bill (HB) 153 (Ohio House Bill 153, 2011; People for the American Way, 2012). Among other things, HB 153 mandated that if the legislature failed to pass standards for virtual schools by January 1, 2013, as indeed it failed, passing no such standards, the schools would be governed by the “National Standards for Online Courses” of the trade association iNACOL (International Association for K–12 Online Learning) (Ohio Department of Education, 2013). iNACOL standards, however, do not offer specific guidelines for performance levels on standardized tests, nor do they specify minimum completion rates for students. Instead, they close the distance between those who set the standards and those surveilled through them: Lager served on the iNACOL Board of Directors from 2006 to 2008, and received an “Innovator Award” from the organization in 2008.

The whole process sketched above, from campaign contributions to participation in national networks, feed into a variant of a mechanism that political scientists label drift, in which regulations are deliberately held constant. In this case, the regulations applying to conventional schools are not revised, “in the face of major environmental shifts,” such as the rise of virtual schools and their nexus of national organizations and coalitions advocating them, “causing their outcomes to change” (Hacker, Pierson, & Thelen, 2013, p. 2): The regulations no longer regulate the largest schools in the state.

The process also points to ways in which one cannot reduce political capital and influence to campaign contributions: it is the capacity to infuse large contributions into a system while simultaneously introducing new organizational forms (the virtual schools) and linking to new political actors (such as ALEC) that allows the schools to prosper.

Finally, virtual schools generate forms of political capital by undermining political opposition for this conservative agenda—teachers’ unions, among the largest organizations of public sector workers and particular targets of neoliberal organizations and conservative politicians (e.g., Bale & Knopp, 2012; Uetricht, 2014; Weiner, 2012). This is political capital as a kind of side effect. As Ferguson (1994) argues, development projects may fail in their official aims, yet have strategically important side effects. Programs designed to improve livestock practices, for example, may do little for farmers, but allow states to build roads and communication infrastructure that augment their ability to control and exploit distant regions of their hinterlands. Similarly, schools that fail on test-based accountability metrics may nonetheless have significant political effects through dissolving the school as a stable work site—teachers and students usually work from home (Miron & Urschel, 2012; Molnar et al. 2014, p. 1)—dissolving the classroom as a locus and container of a teacher’s work and shifting the scale of the school from the district to the state. The temporality of teaching and student activity changes, schedules become flexible, in some cases individuated. Teacher collegiality is constrained in new ways. Informal interactions outside the school, and traditional opportunities for collegiality, become difficult or impossible as the places and times of work are no longer shared, as students may no longer be visible as shared. Virtual schools in these ways fracture the workplace and undermine the conventional district-level basis where teachers have recently been successful in creating ties to students’ communities, for the kinds of social justice organizing now seen by public sectors unions as essential to their viability (e.g., Gude & Sunkara, 2014; Uetricht, 2014; but cf. Winslow, 2015).

In some accounts, they also begin to redefine the employment status of teachers generally. Writing in a Fordham Institute “white paper,” Hassel and Hassel (2011) observe that teachers working in conventional schools pursue jobs in virtual schools as a form of moonlighting—“In Alabama’s online school, for example, most of the faculty members have traditional teaching jobs during the day” (p. 5). A legal ruling in Ohio has redefined teachers in one virtual school as “independent contractors” (State ex rel. Nese v. State Teachers Retirement Bd. of Ohio, 2013), making unionization virtually impossible and exempting the school from federal rules regarding employment discrimination, and certain kinds of benefits (e.g., family medical leave, pensions).

Such effects make virtual schools politically attractive to school privatization and marketization proponents. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, now a national advocate for online schooling (and the 2010 commencement speaker at ECOT), described digital learning as:

a transformative tool to disrupt the public education system, to make it more child-centered, more customized, more robust, more diverse, more exciting." He told National Review two months later that "the unions see [digital learning] as an even bigger threat than vouchers because it's such a disruptive idea. (Mencimer, 2011; c.f. Mangu-Ward, 2010)

Lager, appointed by Bush to his national Digital Learning Council, sensed these political implications early on. Writing in 2002, he argues that:

Unions today have limited their focus, nearly to the exclusion of everything else, to retain power and control issues. . . . As parents have demanded choice in education for their children, unions, not teachers, are the first to feel threatened. . . . We don’t need the teachers unions. Only the teachers’ unions need the teachers’ unions. (Lager, 2002, p. 126)

ECOT in 2014 advertises its incompatibility with unionization on one of its webpage: The top benefits listed for teachers, after “competitive salaries” (ECOT salaries are below the state average, see Innovation Ohio, 2011, pp. 5–6) are that “gas and other commuting costs are eliminated” and that there are “no dues or fair share fees; no contracts; no strikes” (ECOT, 2014).

The argument is not that the ECOT-assemblage is spared penalties for low test scores because it creates difficulties for unions, but that virtual schools as an institutional form are seen as weakening the unions, and that this effect attracts or reinforces the political support they garner from national groups like ALEC (and those it influences), who can help shape a generally supportive environment for the schools.


That environment consists not only of political and economic contexts, but also policy contexts in which influential state and corporate actors frame schooling as a market system: Schools are imagined as firms, students as customers, and pedagogy, curricula, and tutoring services as commodities (Burch, 2009). Virtual schooling expands the scale of such processes. It allows schools and school districts to become consumers of educational commodities produced by national and transnational firms.

The assemblage analyzed here has assumed a distinctive role in this process by generating yet another avatar—a software infrastructure that allows it to move more freely across national territory and mesh with firms and state systems beyond Ohio.

Although ECOT-Altair had initially depended on Xerox and other corporations for technical expertise and software, within a decade it developed its own software infrastructure, and translated it into a marketable form. Altair put IQity® on the market in 2007, describing it in a press release at the launching as a:

Learning Suite for grades 9-12—a better way of thinking about online education and the traditional classroom. . . . We are convinced the IQity Learning Suite offers the most comprehensive and flexible online education system with more innovative features than any e-learning product on the market," said William L. Lager, president of Altair Learning Management, the developer of the online learning management system. "Flexibility is the key in using IQity because schools may tailor it to meet students' needs -- whether they are full-time e-school students or they are working in a blended learning environment. (Altair Learning Management, 2007)

Material displacement has a pair of important consequences: it loosens the historical and geographical anchoring of the assemblage. Note that the press release does not mention ECOT, although its centrality to the development of the learning platform is indicated in claims that “the educators and engineers who developed IQity® have years of experience in successfully educating thousands of Ohio children,” and that “Altair developed IQity with and for K–12 students” (a claim used for marketing to contrast IQity® to similar technologies, for example, by Blackboard with origins in higher education (Altair Learning Management, 2007). We can speak of this as a form of “material displacement” (Latour, 1994, 2005), in which past, as well as ongoing social relations among groups, organizations, objects, and texts are congealed in a seemingly neutral form—a software—that masks their origin and ties. In ECOT’s case, this masking was reinforced in 2009 when Lager created a new organization—“IQ Innovations”—to manage and market IQity®.7 ECOT now pays IQ Innovations more for “curriculum services” ($14.3 million in 2010–2011) than it does Altair for management ($3.6 million the same year) (Yost, 2013, pp. 31–32). As in the relation of ECOT to Altair, IQity’s relation to the IQ Innovations corporation allows the latter to translate profit into political influence—for example, paying consulting fees to staffers of nationally influential politicians like Jeb Bush, later a commencement speaker at ECOT’s 10th graduation (Fang, 2011).

The rupturing of the spatial anchoring is more profound. The material displacement of the assemblage into IQity® frees the assemblage from the other avatars’ anchoring it to Ohio. As a state-funded school, ECOT could not cross state borders. IQity® can be sold anywhere and adapted to the infrastructure of different state education systems. As a software platform, segregated from Altair and now an outside product that ECOT pays for, the IQity® avatar can be marketed and made interoperable with other software and record-keeping systems across the country.

The best example of this on a national scale is its use in the statewide K12 online platform for California—“CaliQity”—“the most robust, user-friendly, and cost-effective online learning environment available today” (CaliQity, 2014). Within Ohio IQity® allows the assemblage to become integrated at the state scale independently of ECOT: Specifically, IQity was chosen (by Chancellor Petro, as mentioned above) to serve as the back end system for a key part of Ohio’s infrastructure for online K–12 schooling, the ilearnOhio Virtual School curriculum repository [state funding for the Repository ended with the 2015-2016 school year8], an:

e-learning platform funded by the Ohio General Assembly to ensure that Ohio students have access to high-quality online courses. This statewide platform includes a searchable repository of standards-aligned educational content (courses and digital resources), an e-commerce marketplace, and a learning management system to facilitate the delivery of course content from multiple providers to various end users. (ilearnOhio, 2013)

The particular construction of this system creates a context for national for-profit firms to gain access to the public school system, and does so in a way that refocuses accountability from teacher and school to vendors.

IQity®’s learning objects repository, Reactor, generates a marketplace for national and international vendors such as Rethink Learning, Accelerate Education, Class.com, Carnegie Learning, CICERO, CK–12, Daydream Education, Educators Virtual Mentor, Khan Academy, Learning Bridges, Thinkfinity by Verizon, and Virtual Nerd. This creates perhaps another kind of assemblage, in which the vendors’ products are in turn structured to be interoperable (see Lawn, 2011) with nationally-scaled standards, such as the “common core” curriculum (as in the “common core aligned digital textbooks” provided by CK-12 through IQity®).

This form of cross-system integration achieved through the production of course materials and pedagogical tools is something more than a digital version of textbook-driven pedagogy (e.g., Goodlad, 1984). Rather, the “IQity Marketplace” functions as a repository for alternative or competing “content” organized into instructional formats. A promotional animation (IQ Innovations, 2012) presents the Marketplace by showing an animated shopper walking through a virtual learning market set up like a grocery store, its shelves with labels such as “Biology,” “Hippocampus,” “Algebra,” and “NASA”—curriculum-pedagogy modules described as “scalable to millions,” “content neutral,” “flexible,” “fully integrated,” “easily customizable,” and “standards aligned.” The video transitions to a kitchen scene, with the narrator explaining that:

Once the district has made all of its selections (of curriculum vendors), the courses are then made available to the teachers. The teacher simply selects one of the approved courses, maybe adds an assignment or two, spices it up with a couple of dynamic learning objects. Once the teacher has prepared a course for his and her specific classroom, the teacher is ready to serve up a delicious well-balanced education.

Teachers in this representation are consumers in their own right, the culmination of a long-standing goal of Lager’s. Writing in 2002, he envisioned the translation of curriculum from textbook and other formats that synthesized large subject domains, to a software-based system “breaking textbooks down into microbytes” (Lager, 2002, p. 195) that teachers could assemble in different forms for different students; the content would be “leased” and student use tracked so that schools could be charged by use:

It would allow us to load a curriculum product on our server for little or no money and only pay when a student uses it. . . . It is a true market-driven system . . . that will allow schools to lease very small units of curriculum and give the suppliers the incentive to produce them. (p. 194)


We began this paper by posing the puzzle of how ECOT thrives when it fails by the terms of established school accountability regimes. The answer lies in the fact that it’s not a school in the sense presupposed by those regimes. Rather, it is part of an evolving assemblage that redistributes core school functions—instructional program selection, hiring decisions, strategic planning, and so on—across multiple avatars. This supplies one solution to the puzzle: Different avatars are legible to the state in terms of different accountability regimes. The assemblage looks better to the state as a business than as a school, it speaks louder as a political actor, it moves farther and combines better with other corporations as a software platform. By shifting avatars, the assemblage as a whole can slip across regulatory environments and influence how it held accountable by the state.

As this account implies, making sense of EMO-managed virtual schools requires scrutiny of the whole constellation of processes associated with the assemblage. Focusing on the school facet alone pushes one towards a position in which raising test scores and graduation rates become the primary criteria for judgment. But would the arrangements described in the body of the paper be unobjectionable if ECOT and similar schools produced high test scores and graduation rates for “at-risk” students? An affirmative answer forms part of the legitimizing rhetoric of virtual school proponents. The “at-risk” construct, a discursive tool for explaining away school difficulties in terms of students’ internal deficits (Placier, 1993; O’Connor, Hill, & Robinson, 2009; Valencia, 2010, pp. 101–117), becomes in the case of ECOT a reference to the internalized residue of individual students’ past schooling deficits: The school’s “model student” [sic] is described as one that “comes . . . with large academic deficits” (Yost, 2014, p. v):

High school students have been held back one or more years and are not with their cohort group, are credit-deficient, and not in line to graduate within the four-year graduation rate formula. (Yost, 2014, p. iii; cf. Miron & Urschel, 2012, for national data)

At ECOT’s 10th commencement ceremony (where the keynote was given by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush), William Lager emphasized the school’s “academic success” with this “at-risk student population;” and a press release for the occasion claimed that while ECOT’s student population resembled “the at-risk, economically-disadvantaged population” of Ohio’s largest urban school districts, “ECOT and other online schools performed better” than such districts “when the value-added measurement is considered” (BusinessWire, 2010).

A logical response is to scrutinize these claims with the available data. As noted earlier, virtual schools perform poorly on standard assessments. Characterizing the national landscape, Molnar et al. (2014) note that on “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) measures, virtual schools’ results were:

22 percentage points lower than those of brick-and-mortar schools (2011-12). AYP ratings were substantially weaker for virtual schools managed by EMOs than for brick-and-mortar schools managed by EMOs: 29.6% compared with 51.1%. Based on the available data, the on-time graduation rates for full-time virtual schools was close to half the national average: 43.8% and 78.6%, respectively. (p. iii)

Similarly, the most recent Ohio school “Report Cards” show ECOT earning straight “Fs” on “value added” measures—lower ratings than those of otherwise low-scoring urban districts such as Columbus and Cleveland (State of Ohio, 2014; Mild, 2015)—and graduating 38.4% graduation rate after four years, below the national average even for virtual schools (Molnar et al., 2014). An ECOT spokesman has responded in the past that such figures do not account for “the five-year, six-year and seven-year graduates,” that the school “considers among its greatest success stories’" (Siegel, 2011, May 12), but ECOT’s 5-year graduation rate (the longest span reported by the state) is still only 42.1% (State of Ohio, 2014).

The problem with limiting the response to such number issues, however, is that allowing debate to be framed in this manner centers attention on the school avatar and draws scrutiny away from the profit-taking, political influence, infrastructure shaping, redefinitions of teaching, and so on, that are integral to the assemblage. The relevant problem becomes raising scores or finding a way to close particular low-performing schools. This allows national virtual school advocates themselves to join the chorus calling for higher scores:

The performance issues rampant in the online schooling industry have become so evident even Susan Patrick, president of iNACOL, stated: “Unless we address these quality issues that have emerged quite profoundly,” the poor performance of cyber schools will “put the entire industry of education innovation at risk. (Molnar, et al. 2014, p. 19)

Given such rhetoric, it is possible that ECOT and similar big online schools could come under pressure or attack from former supporters—although there is no indication of this in the near-term—without affecting the political viability of virtual schooling as an institutional form or the assemblage processes described earlier. Indeed, if critics and supporters alike reduce quality to test score results, the other modes of the assemblages’ operations are likely to sink from sight once the schools find a way to raise the scores.

So let us assume that some virtual schools do, or will, produce such good scores and graduation rates. Should we then accept the idea that virtual schooling helps or holds promise for helping students placed at-risk? The current state of knowledge prevents a simple answer. The data are often incomplete (Catalanello & Sokol , 2012), and much of the published research on virtual schools’ work with at-risk students focuses on small numbers of exemplary schools or on the potential of virtual schools to individualize instruction or increase graduation rates through offerings like credit recovery (Repetto, Cavanaugh, Wayer, & Liu, 2010; Roblyer, 2006; Watson & Gemin, 2008).

More fundamentally, the question is unanswerable in a general form. “Online” and “face-to-face” are category terms, and meta-analytic or otherwise generalized answers obscure the high degree of heterogeneity within each category. Some critics have argued along these lines that “online learning is simply the delivery medium; gains or losses in student learning derive from how that face-to-face or online learning is designed, delivered, and supported” (Barbour, 2014, p 8)—the latter topics being ones about which adequate information is lacking. Yet such criticisms are problematic in their own right. Online and face-to-face instruction are not commodities designed and delivered. They are dynamic, lived processes that evolve as people learn, work out identities and goals, move through sequences of social and academic tasks, and in the process come to know each other and transform activity systems. School-oriented practices, moreover, are shaped by opportunities, constraints, and resources in students’ environments, and unfold in constant and consequential interaction with processes and events beginning and ending beyond the school. Absent research that situates virtual schools in these extended sociomaterial worlds—worlds being transformed in part by other elements of the assemblage—we will understand little about how they work, let alone whether they meet the needs of at-risk students.

If a focus on the school facet depoliticizes these issues by reducing educational problems to forms that can be resolved through technical fixes, a focus on the whole assemblage, by contrast, entails a politicized approach. This might involve, for example, examining how educational assemblages are produced and used, and reimaging how educators, parents, activists, and others might engage in assemblage politics across multiple scales and fields. The assemblage that ECOT is part of has evolved as the temporal and spatial organization of schooling is undergoing significant transformation. States have assumed expanding and increasingly interventionist roles in education (cf. Henig, 2009). Trans-state actors (foundations, corporations, think tanks, ALEC) have become influential shapers not only of education policy and practice, but of legislative and regulatory structures (e.g., Reckhow, 2013). Infrastructure such as the Common Core curricula, standardized testing systems, and interoperable databases allow the creation of new forms of national or transnational education spaces (Lawn, 2011). Assemblage forms, in particular those associated with virtual schooling, are both adaptive responses to, and agents promoting such shifts: They are strategies of organization that can act as state-level (ECOT) or trans-state (IQity®) entities, and generate and capture past labor and convert it into forms of capital that can be used to influence state-level politics, either directly through contributions, or indirectly through participation in groups such as ALEC.

One response would be to try to disassemble the assemblages. As difficult as this would be, it also invites the temptation to succumb to what Purcell (2006) describes as the “local trap,” the assumption that “the local scale is . . . inherently more democratic than other scales” (p. 1921; e.g., Mathews, 2004): It often is, but need not be. One might, for example, take a different tack and ask whether there are ways of maneuvering within the emergent state-wide or trans-state scales of schooling that don’t depend on the kind of assemblages described above. What might be the ways of distributing the functions of schooling to make it more democratic while at the same time enabling it to operate on a trans-local scale? Are there ways of accumulating scholastic pasts and transmuting them into educational value and political power that don’t involve reducing them to money? Are there was of organizing schooling at the level of the state without using franchising logics or strategies that disrupt ties to particular places and communities? How might social movement models, and social justice unionism, be extended beyond city or regional emphases to coordinate action across state lines, that is, to enter the fields of play being shaped and dominated by entities like ALEC or the Gates Foundation? In short, rather than simply trying to end ECOT’s immunity to test-based evaluation, are there also ways to re-assemble more public and democratic forms of education that stretch across space, take different materials forms, and accumulate labor as forms of capital?


We would like to thank Stephen Dyer, Education Policy Fellow at Innovation Ohio, for feedback on an early draft of this manuscript.


1. Sixty-seven percent (67%) of students in virtual schools across the United States attend EMO operated schools (Molnar et al. 2014). The largest of such EMOs, K12 Inc., controls 58 virtual schools around the country and enrolls a third of all fully online students nationwide.

2. At least one large virtual school—the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, with over 11,000 pupils enrolled—is under FBI investigation at the time of this writing (see summary at URL: http://goo.gl/kt0qIj).

3. Spending less does not mean ECOT or other virtual schools cost less than traditional schools—Ohio law funds virtual schools at the same per-pupil rate as traditional schools, though they lack transportation, building, maintenance, and other expenses (Bloom & O’Donnell, 2012).

4. Power (2004) describes a similar process as “second-order” audit—a focus on the adequacy of representations (e.g., record-keeping practices) rather than the practices they supposedly represent (e.g., teaching). But this fits with a market-extremism in which judgments of complex practices are treated as the provenance of the market, and institutions need only demonstrate that they make themselves market-ready and market-readable.

5. The assemblage’s contributions would be larger if one counted Altair employees (e.g., someone identified as             money.org, 2006).

6. The challenger accused the incumbent of favoring ECOT and other EMO-run charters because of their owners’ contributions to his campaign—“letting them slide because charter school operators have donated thousands of dollars to his campaign” (http://wcbe.org/post/campaigns-ohio-auditor).

7. IQ Innovations seems exclusively focused on IQity®—its webpage URL is http://www.iq-ity.com. We use the two names interchangeably.

8. During the gap between the acceptance of this article (February 2015) and its appearance in print, a number of relevant events related to ECOT have transpired which cannot be incorporated into the manuscript at this late date. None affect the argument of the article. On the Repository, see http://www.cantonrep.com/article/20160225/news/302259998 and http://www.educationnews.org/online-schools/ohio-distance-learning-clearinghouse-to-shut-down-at-end-of-year/ and



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 7, 2016, p. 1-28
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 20874, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 10:05:00 PM

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About the Author
  • Jan Nespor
    Ohio State University
    E-mail Author
    JAN NESPOR is a professor in the Education Policy program of the Department of Educational Studies at the Ohio State University. His research examines urban education policy, the temporal and spatial transformations of schooling, and the reterritorializations of teaching. Recent publications include “Discursive Geographies: Politics and Public Narratives of Immigration in a Midwestern US City,” Journal of Language and Politics, (2014) and “Schooling for the Long-term: Elite Education and Temporal Accumulation," Zeitschrift für Erziehungswissenshaft (2014).
  • Rick Voithofer
    Ohio State University
    E-mail Author
    RICK VOITHOFER is an associate professor in the Educational Technology program of the Department of Educational Studies at the Ohio State University. His research examines digital equity and education, foundational topics related to educational technology, and cultural studies of education. A recent publication includes "Promiscuous Feminisms for Troubling Times,” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education (2013).
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