K12 Inc.: Bay Area lawmakers call for audit of California Virtual Academies operator
By Jessica Calefati, firstname.lastname@example.org
05/31/2016 05:08:41 AM PDT
SACRAMENTO — A bipartisan group of lawmakers is calling for a state audit of a profitable but low-performing network of online charter schools following this newspaper’s investigation of K12 Inc., the Virginia company at the heart of the operation.
Published last month, the two-part series revealed that the Wall Street-traded company reaps tens of millions of dollars in state funding while graduating fewer than half of the students enrolled in its high schools. It also found that teachers at K12’s California Virtual Academies have been asked to inflate attendance and enrollment records used to determine how much state funding the schools receive.
Assembly members Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, and Catharine Baker, R-San Ramon, say an audit is needed because the Legislature takes allegations of misspent public money seriously — and that any company profiting while students struggle deserves intense scrutiny. Lawmakers say its findings would likely set the stage for legislation aimed at addressing the problems at online schools.
“This reporting raises serious questions that demand a more thorough investigation, which is why I will work with my colleagues to pursue an audit of for-profit charter schools and the mechanisms in place to hold them accountable,” said Ting, who is joining with Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and other Assembly members to craft the audit request.
Nationally, 70 percent of students enrolled in online charters attend schools managed by for-profit companies such as K12 and its leading competitor, Connections Academy, while 30 percent attend charters that are independent or run by nonprofits.
Sacramento lawmakers aren’t the only ones troubled by K12’s track record. Tom Torlakson, California’s superintendent of public instruction, vowed last week to collaborate with the legislators on possible fixes.
“I am concerned by some issues and practices exposed in this article,” Torlakson said. “I am exploring options to investigate laws and regulations governing these types of charter schools and will work closely with legislators interested in this subject.”
But coming up with solutions to such politically charged problems won’t be easy.
Gov. Jerry Brown is a strong supporter of charter schools and has already vetoed bills that sought to force all charters to comply with conflict-of-interest and transparency rules and ban for-profit companies from operating them. And earlier this year, two bills that would have addressed some of the problems highlighted in this newspaper’s series stalled under pressure from interest groups.
The newspaper’s investigation found that students who spend as little as one minute during a school day logged on to K12’s school software may be counted as “present” in records used to calculate state funding. The investigation also revealed that the districts tasked with overseeing K12’s California schools have a strong financial incentive to turn a blind eye to problems because they receive a cut of California Virtual Academies’ revenue to oversee the schools, which now enroll about 15,000 students.
“Taking the bull by the horns and regulating these irresponsible for-profit companies shouldn’t be a wild idea,” said Bruce Fuller, an education policy professor at UC Berkeley. “If nothing happens and K12 faces no consequences, the company stands to poison the legitimacy of the whole (charter) movement.”
Asked about the possible audit, K12 spokesman Mike Kraft did not comment. But he argued in an email that a student logged onto the company’s software for a minute would not result in additional state funding for K12 without a determination by the student’s teacher that he or she had completed required work.
“In other words, a log on alone — regardless of duration — would not be submitted by CAVA (California Virtual Academies) nor be eligible for funding,” Kraft wrote.
Any bill that creates a new rule for charter schools will require Brown’s support. But a group of Assembly Democrats hope the weight of a Joint Legislative Audit Committee’s findings is what’s needed to draft something the governor finds “palatable,” said John Casey, a spokesman for Rendon, D-Paramount.
Members of the upper and lower house who sit on the committee meet several times a year to consider lawmakers’ audit requests. Once those requests are approved, they’re transferred to California State Auditor Elaine Howle, who is currently working on more than a dozen committee requests. Typically, audits take several months to complete.
“As a parent of school-age children and education advocate, I don’t see any integrity in counting a student who has logged in to an online class for as little as one minute as ‘present’ for instructional purposes or for calculating attendance funding,” said Assemblywoman Baker, the Bay Area’s lone GOP lawmaker.
Drafting legislation that the powerful California Charter Schools Association and California Teachers Association can both support will be another big hurdle to regulating schools run by companies like K12.
In March, Assemblywoman Patty López, D-San Fernando, introduced Assembly Bill 2242, which would have banned for-profit corporations such as K12 from operating charter schools. But the bill also sought to block charters from being part of a network that allows them to share administrators and pool resources to purchase curriculum, banning a structure used today by nearly half the state’s charter schools.
Lopez soon abandoned the bill after charter advocates flooded her district office with letters and calls urging her to drop it.
“After hearing many concerns from families in my district, many of them that I personally know, I have made a decision to not move forward with AB 2242 in the form that it is today,” López said in a statement. “My intent with the bill was not to harm charter schools, but to bring transparency when it comes to public funding.”
The California Charter Schools Association would support legislation that bans for-profit companies like K12 from operating charter schools, but so far no bills have been introduced that deal strictly with that topic, spokeswoman Emily Bertelli said.
Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Walnut Creek, encountered equally passionate opposition to Senate Bill 1434, which sought to impose new restrictions on the school districts that review prospective charter schools’ applications and oversee them once they open their doors.
Glazer’s bill, which was sponsored by the California Charter Schools Association, would have required all school districts that authorize charter schools to annually submit financial statements to the charters, showing how they spent the oversight fees collected. Once the California Teachers Association voiced numerous concerns with the sweeping proposal, which the union detailed in a lengthy April letter addressed to Glazer, the measure stalled before being heard by the Senate Education Committee.
K12’s critics such as Diane Ravitch — a New York University education historian and former U.S. Department of Education assistant secretary — say the company’s track record in California is so worrisome that there should be no excuse for lawmakers dragging their feet.
“The California Legislature should feel obligated to do something about it,” Ravitch said. “It’s incomprehensible that no one seems to care.”
Contact Jessica Calefati at 916-441-2101. Follow her at Twitter.com/Calefati.