Edu-grifters: English academies and the global schools business

Matthew Bennett's picture


When Donald met Ron

In the autumn of 2016, Donald Trump paid a visit to a charter school in Cleveland, Ohio.  Candidate Trump gave a speech – in which he promised, if elected, to use $20 billion of federal funds to support ‘school choice’ – and took part in a panel discussion.  This was chaired by Ron Packard, the founder and CEO of Pansophic Learning Inc.  Pansophic is the parent company of ACCEL Schools, a for-profit ‘education management organisation’ (EMO) which is now the biggest operator of charter schools in Ohio.  Charter schools, publicly funded but run by private contractors – sometimes directly for profit – were the model for New Labour’s city academies.

Since 2014, Ron Packard's firm has muscled its way into the Ohio charter school industry, buying out the management contracts of a number of other EMOs, giving ‘a base business to build off of’, as the CEO puts it.  The school visited by Trump, the Cleveland Social Sciences and Arts Academy, used to be run by a company called Mosaica Education – most of whose assets were acquired by Pansophic Learning in 2015.

Ron Packard describes himself as an ‘educator, entrepreneur and visionary’.  He began his career at Goldman Sachs, working in mergers and acquisitions; he is a long-term business associate of Michael Milken, the ‘junk bond king’ of the 1980s.  (Milken’s Wall Street career ended in convictions for fraud and racketeering; he has since moved into the education and childcare business.)  Like Milken – and like Trump – Packard has a keen sense of the commercial possibilities of online education.  Ten years ago, he ‘wrote a business plan to create […] online public schools and private schools’ (here).  Between 2009 and 2013, he earned $19 million as CEO of K12 Inc., the first education business to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange (more about this later).  Packard’s latest venture, Pansophic, is ‘a global technology-based education company’, running schools in the US, the Middle East, and Europe.

Unlike K12 Inc.’s wholly virtual schools, the Ohio charter schools acquired by ACCEL are ‘brick-and-mortar’ assets.  But they use ‘integrated technology’ – or ‘individualized electronic instruction’ – to ‘drive continuous gains in academic performance’ (here).  The results so far are mixed.  The Cleveland Academy of Social Sciences and Arts was given a D for performance and F for progress on Ohio's 'school report card' (here).  Packard blames the failings of the PARCC standardised test: a computer-based, online test designed and administered by Pearson.  The British firm is still the dominant player in the US testing industry, and an aggressive promoter of ‘digital education’.


Meanwhile, in Crawley…

Two years later, here in the UK, another politician visited another school.  Damian Hinds’ visit to the Gatwick School in Crawley naturally attracted much less attention than Trump’s descent on Cleveland.  Like Trump, Damian Hinds has plenty to say about school choice (or ‘diversity of providers’).  But what really gets him excited is education technology.  Shortly before his visit to the Gatwick School, he had ‘challenged the tech industry to launch an education revolution’.  This April, he launched the government’s ‘EdTech strategy’,  which will help tech firms ‘to develop, test and validate products in real-world settings’ – in other words, state-funded schools – and ‘create new opportunities for buyers to meet sellers’.  After all, ‘the EdTech sector needs clear routes to market for innovative products and services’ (here).  The strategy has been enthusiastically endorsed by Google and Microsoft.

There may, then, have been a particular reason for Hinds’ choice of the Gatwick School for a photo op, beyond the fact that it’s a free school and part of an academy chain.  According to the Aurora Academies Trust’s website, ‘AAT academies … infuse all of its [sic] teaching with technology’.  The chain aims to provide ‘exceptional learning solutions’ through the use of ‘integrated technology’ – just like ACCEL Schools and Pansophic Learning.

And this, as they say, is no accident – because the Aurora Academies Trust is also run by Ron Packard.  The story of how an American businessman gained control of six English schools shows how far the ‘market barriers’ that Damian Hinds worries about have already been swept away.  Academisation has plugged state-funded education in England into a transnational marketplace where, to quote Milton Friedman, schools are ‘sold like groceries’ (here).  And ed tech – in other words, networked computers and online ‘learning platforms’ – is integral to this new global market.


Players in the market

The story begins in 2012.  Michael Gove’s ‘schools revolution’ was under way.  The Academies Act of 2010 and the Education Act of 2011 had turbo-charged New Labour's academies programme.  Combined with deep cuts to local government budgets, Gove's reforms led to the rapid ‘deconstruction of the education function within local authorities’, as one newly-formed edu-business put it in a report to shareholders.  The move to full-scale privatisation – firms running schools for profit, as in Ohio and other US states – was prevented by the Lib Dems.  But the mass academisation of schools allowed a range of private interests – from big contractors like Interserve to 'venture philanthropists' like Ark Schools – to take control of public funds and assets.

American firms, amongst others, were quick to see the opportunity.  EdisonLearning Inc. – the successor to the original for-profit EMO, Edison Schools – has been providing ‘education services’ to English state schools since 2003.  It launched its own academy chain, the Collaborative Academies Trust, in August 2012.  Other players in the international education market were eager to get a piece of the action.  A month after EdisonLearning launched its academy trust, the Dubai-based GEMS (Global Education Management Systems) set up the GEMS Learning Trust.  And the Swedish firm Kunskapsskolan had already entered the new market, via its Learning Schools Trust (see here and here).

But the connection between a charter school in Cleveland and an academy in Crawley lies with another US business:  Mosaica Education.  In 2012, Mosaica was 'keen to establish a platform in England'; and in 2012 it added four primary schools on the South Coast to its 'growing international portfolio' of assets (here).


Mosaica Inc.

A profit-making EMO, Mosaica was founded in 1997 by Dawn and Gene Eidelman.  The couple are fairly typical representatives of the edu-biz world.  Gene describes himself as ‘a serial entrepreneur and education reform pioneer’.  Dawn is also a ‘seasoned educational entrepreneurship [sic]’, as well as a ‘culture architect’ and ‘content marketer’ (here).

The Eidelmans’ first business venture was a chain of childcare centres.  Mosaica Inc., which opened its first charter school in 1997, offered management services to both public and private schools (‘Bring your charter, private, or corporate school concept to life with Mosaica’).  These services apparently included facilities management, finances and human resources, governance, and ‘marketing and public relations’, as well as the core competencies of any education business: curriculum development, assessment, and the training of teaching staff (here).

To fuel their ambitious growth plan, the Eidelmans sought capital from private investment firms.  In 1998, a big chunk of their company was purchased by Lepercq Capital Management, a New York-based firm serving ‘high net worth individuals’.  Along with the investment, Michael Connelly, a venture capitalist with interests in cable television and radio, and a general partner at Lepercq, became Mosaica's CEO.



Dawn Eidelman is the creator of Paragon™, a proprietary curriculum licensed for use in all schools run by the company.  Eidelman, who apparently designed the entire curriculum single-handed, claims that it represents ‘over 50,000 instructional hours of content’.  She also claims that it ‘awakens the genius in children and reignites that of their teachers and parents’, and prepares students to become the 'conscious architects of tomorrow'.

Paragon™ is based on a crackpot theory of history in which ‘sweeping cycles repeat’, and ‘many ideas develop at the same time in independent cultures unaware of the other’s [sic] breakthroughs’.  For Eidelman, building an entire curriculum around ‘the history of great ideas and great people in world culture’ – or the cyclic ‘evolutions’ of the eight ‘Human Eras’ – allowed Mosaica schools to transcend the traditional divisions between subjects: ‘Essentially, a focus on ethics, integrates the arts and sciences within each individual student’.  What this means is difficult to say.  What is clear, however, is that Paragon™, with its 'global, multicultural perspective', was designed with an eye on the overseas market.

While offering the keys to all human knowledge, the Mosaica model was also geared to ‘propel student achievement’ – in other words, produce high scores in national or state tests in maths and English.  In Mosaica's schools, half of the (extended) school day was spent studying Paragon™; the other half was used to prepare students for standardised tests in reading, writing, and maths.  The extended school day and year was another way of forcing the pace, of obtaining ‘accelerated mastery’ (= higher test scores).  Dawn Eidelman tried to square the circle by pitching Paragon™ as 'a curriculum that is data-driven and which incorporates a child-centred approach'.  But the use of a proprietary, licensed curriculum meant that teaching was highly regimented.  Staff were provided with ‘step-by-step daily lesson plans’, and closely supervised by ‘curriculum specialists’.

They were also required to make use a great deal of ‘web-based’ material.  In the days before wireless internet access and Chromebooks, the Mosaica model was impressively tech-driven:

A Mosaica Charter School is equipped with a computer for every two to three children, as well as with a laptop for each teacher and administrator. The personal desktop computers are linked to the Internet, affording access to curriculum and resources available in cyberspace or on disk.  Daily Paragon™ lesson plans direct students to specific Internet sites on a regular basis.

A proprietary curriculum, standardised or ‘scripted’ teaching, a heavy reliance on information technology ... Mosaica’s approach had many features in common with the highly uniform school model now being developed by big academy chains like Ark Schools or United Learning.  The Eidelmans’ aims, of course, were directly commercial; they were trying to develop a standard product which could be sold in multiple markets across the world.  By 2012, as we will see, Mosaica was operating schools in the Gulf States and India, and was about to acquire four English academies.  The ‘programme’ was going international.  As Dawn Eidelman told an interviewer in 2013, regarding Mosaica’s online charter schools in the USA: ‘[it’s] the same programme that we charge $20,000 a year tuition for in Dubai, and it’s tuition-free’.


From Michigan to Abu Dhabi

Mosaica’s core business was running charter schools.  Many US states passed ‘charter laws’ in the 1990s, with strong encouragement from the Clinton administration; federal education policy under George W. Bush pushed the ‘charterisation’ of public schools even harder.  Mosaica targeted those states, like Michigan or Ohio, which have gone furthest in deregulating their public school systems, giving for-profit EMOs access to school funding.  By 2000, the firm was running twelve charter schools in five states.  It acquired a lot more a year later, when it bought up another for-profit EMO, Advantage Schools Inc.  But in the same year, ominously, the board of trustees of the firm’s second school – the Mosaica Academy Charter School in Bensalem, Pennsylvania – voted to end their contract with the firm (the board argued that, as a ‘public agency’, they were ‘entrusted with the responsibility of spending public funds wisely’).

Mosaica was quickly on the scene when, in the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina, New Orleans’ public schools were converted en masse into charters – although this venture didn’t end well for the firm (see here).  In 2012, an entire school district – Muskegon Heights, in Michigan – was handed over to Mosaica; but, two years later, the company walked away from the five-year contract, for financial reasons (here).

As one observer noted in 2009, ‘tracking the actual performance of Mosaica schools has always been difficult, since its portfolio of schools has been somewhat of a revolving door, with schools leaving the Mosaica fold and new ones entering on a regular basis’ (see also here).  Of the first 36 charter schools set up by the company, 27 had apparently either closed or severed ties with Mosaica by 2012 (here).  In the meantime, however, the firm had expanded into overseas markets – especially the Middle East, a key profit centre for international edu-businesses.  In 2004, Mosaica was chosen by the Qatari Ministry of Education to take over the management of a number of state-funded schools, ‘beating out all other US-based education organisations’ (here).  Two years later, Mosaica was involved in a ‘public-private partnership’ in the UAE, along with a number of UK firms.  In 2012, the company acquired a private school in Hyderabad, India.

Like K12 Inc., Mosaica also sought to cash in on the growth of wholly virtual schooling in the USA.  In 2009, the company set up a new division, Mosaica Online, to offer ‘a global, college prep, classical education’ via the internet.  At one point, the company was operating virtual charter schools in Michigan, California, Arizona and Utah.  It also had an online private school, or ‘Preparatory Academy’.


The Aurora Academies Trust

In the autumn of 2012, Mosaica took over four primary schools in Bexhill-on-Sea and Eastbourne.  A year before, in December 2011, the firm had set up a wholly-owned subsidiary, Mosaica Education UK, with Michael Connelly as director.  This UK subsidiary then established an academy trust (i.e. a private limited company, without shareholders).

Or, rather, it established two trusts:  the Aurora Education Trust (AET) and the Aurora Academies Trust (AAT).  The Aurora Education Trust was incorporated in April 2012, with Michael Connelly and the Eidelmans as the three directors.  AET was the sole ‘member’ of the Aurora Academies Trust, which was itself set up in June 2012.  In other words, Connelly and the Eidelmans were the ‘persons with significant control’ – to use the language of company law – with the right to appoint and dismiss trustees.

As it happens, Connelly and the Eidelmans were also trustees of the Aurora Academy Trust, with Gene Eidelman chairing board meetings.  The trust’s British CEO, Tim McCarthy, was a Mosaica employee, working for their Abu Dhabi subsidiary.  He was also a trustee, and in 2013 became a director of the Aurora Education Trust too.

In the same year, the Aurora Academies Trust briefly made the headlines, when the Guardian reported that the trust was paying around £100,000 per year to Mosaica for the use of the Paragon™ curriculum.  But there was nothing illegal in this arrangement, which was founded on ‘a tripartite agreement between the Company [i.e. AAT], Mosaica Education Inc. and the Department of Education’, as the AAT accounts make clear.  It would take more than that to derail the train.

Mosaica clearly had plans for rapid expansion.  In December 2012, the Crawley Free School Trust was established.  Michael Connelly and the Eidelmans were appointed as directors.  The trust proposed to open a new all-through (4-16 years) school near Gatwick Airport with an emphasis on global education, business, entrepreneurship, science and technology’.  A document prepared by the trust states that it is ‘a proposer group consisting of two partners: Place Group Ltd and Mosaica Education Inc.’.  Place Group is a ‘school services’ company; its CEO, Simon Rule, was also a director of the Crawley Free School Trust.

The Crawley Free School, also known as the Gatwick School, opened in September 2014.  But by this time the train had definitely come off the tracks.  Back in the US, Mosaica had taken out substantial loans from Tatonka Capital Corp., 'one of the leading privately-held public sector financial services companies'.  In the course of 2014, it became clear that Mosaica could no longer service its debt, since it was facing 'severe operational and financial difficulties as a result of falling enrolment and terminated management contracts' (here).  The company was put into receivership, and Tatonka – which also operates charter schools – took a share of its assets.


Pansophic Learning in the UK

This is where Ron Packard comes into the picture.  Until 2014, he had been CEO of K12 Inc., a for-profit operator of virtual charter schools, or ‘cyber-charters’, in the USA (in the company's own words, it is a 'leading provider of proprietary curriculum and online learning programmes').  As we have seen, Packard believes that ‘kids have been shackled to their brick-and-mortar school down the block for too long’, and that ‘there’s no reason why eventually you can’t be educating a billion kids online’.  The story of K12 Inc.'s resistible rise involves too many twists and turns, too much marketing and lobbying, and far too many lawsuits, to be told here (see here for details).  Suffice it to say that the company's stock rose significantly following Trump's election in November 2016.

By this time, however, Packard was no longer CEO.  In 2014, he set up a new company, Pansophic Learning – 'K12 redux' – with backing from Safanad Limited, a ‘global principal investment firm’ (here).  Two of Packard’s colleagues at K12 Inc. – Maria Szalay and Bruce Davis – joined Pansophic's executive team.  It is worth pausing for a moment over Mr Davis’s CV, which gives a kind of panoramic view of the global education business:

Mr. Davis is a career education industry executive with extensive experience in international business development.  Prior to joining Pansophic, he served for seven years as K12 Inc.'s Executive Vice President of Business Development.  From 2005 until 2007, Mr. Davis was Sr. Vice President of Business Development for Laureate Education Inc. with focus on the Middle East region.  From 2003-2004 he served as strategic advisor to Discovery Communications where he created the investment and market entry plans for Discovery's education video business.  From 1994 to 2002 Mr. Davis held various positions with Sylvan Learning Systems including Principle at Sylvan Ventures…[continues]

Pansophic acquired some of K12 Inc.’s assets, 'including an international brick-and-mortar private school, a higher education platform business, and the K12 business in the Middle East', as well as 'licenses to curriculum and technology’.  The company also bought up most of the assets of the stricken Mosaica Inc., including the Paragon™ curriculum – and Mosaica Education UK.

So, in July 2015, Mosaica's UK subsidiary became Pansophic Learning UK.  Three new directors were appointed:  Ron Packard, Maria Szalay, and Bruce Davis.  (The company's business address remains the Glenleigh Primary Academy in Bexhill-on-Sea.)  And, along with Mosaica Education UK, the Aurora academies were also handed over to Pansophic.  Michael Connelly and the Eidelmans stepped down as directors of the Aurora Education Trust – to be replaced by Packard, Szalay, and Davis.  In an exact replication of the governance structure created by Mosaica, the three Pansophic executives are simultaneously members and trustees of the Aurora Academies Trust (here).

The Crawley Free School Trust was finally wound up last November, just a month after Damian Hinds’s visit to the Gatwick School.  The operation of the school has been formally transferred to the Aurora Academies Trust.  In other words, it is ultimately directed by Ron Packard and his colleagues at Pansophic, Maria Szalay and Martha Burnige – the new directors of the Aurora Education Trust.  The Crawley Free School Trust’s final set of accounts notes that ‘the Paragon curriculum used at TGS [the Gatwick School] is now owned by Pansophic Learning Ltd and the contract for curriculum services has been assigned to Pansophic Learning Ltd’.


Revolving doors

In fact, this was Ron Packard’s return to the English educational scene.  Since 2011, he had been a director of another multi-academy trust, the Erudition Schools Trust, along with Maria Szalay and John Holdren (senior VP for content and curriculum at K12 Inc.).  At this point, Packard was still the CEO of K12 Inc.; the Erudition Schools Trust was his firm’s attempt to break into the English schools market.  Just like Mosaica, K12 Inc. set up a UK subsidiary, with Packard, Szalay and Holdren as directors.  But, with Packard's and Szalay's departure from K12 Inc. in 2014, and the launch of Pansophic Learning, all three stepped down – both as directors of K12 Education UK, and as trustees of the Erudition Schools Trust.

That trust is now defunct, and its schools have been turned over to other chains (for the story of Erudition’s rise and fall, see here).  But K12 Education UK remains a going concern.  The current CEO of the American parent company, Nathaniel Davis, and another senior executive, James Rhyu, are directors.  And the fire sale of Mosaica's assets to Pansophic has made Ron Packard, once again, both a trustee and a member of an English academy chain.  The Aurora academies have become 'part of Pansophic Learning's international family of schools' (here).

Packard's company continues to ‘accelerate the proliferation of high quality solutions for education', with 'operating businesses' in the US, the Persian Gulf (the iCademy Middle East), and Switzerland, as well as England.  Pansophic's mission to ‘optimize the intersection of blended learning and technology-based learning to maximize the learning efficiency ratio [sic]’ is being pursued with equal determination by giants like Google, Microsoft and Facebook.  All these firms no doubt welcome the support of Damian Hinds and the UK government. 

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 05/06/2019 - 10:47

Donald Trump said that nothing was off the table in future trade talks with the UK.  That includes education as well as the NHS.

Education is a devolved issue: some English MPs may be unconcerned about US for-profit education providers running academy trusts in England, but governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (when it gets itself sorted) may not be so sanguine.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.