California ‘virtual’ academies: Bill targets for-profit operator K12 Inc.

California ‘virtual’ academies: Bill targets for-profit operator K12 Inc.

By Jessica Calefati, jcalefati@bayareanewsgroup.com

Posted:
 
06/10/2016 05:42:47 PM PDT |Updated:   about 22 hours ago

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SACRAMENTO — Online charter schools would be prohibited from hiring for-profit firms to provide instructional services under a new bill that the author says is a direct response to this newspaper’s investigation of the company behind a profitable but low-performing network of “virtual” academies.

That company is K12 Inc., a publicly traded Virginia firm that allows students who spend as little as one minute during a school day logged onto its software to be counted as “present,” as it reaps tens of millions of dollars annually in state funding while graduating fewer than half of its high school students. Students who live almost anywhere south of Humboldt County may sign up for one of the company’s schools.

File photo:Former California Virtual Academies student Elizabeth Novak-Galloway, 12, plays a video game on her laptop in her San Francisco home on Feb. 18, 2016. (Dai Sugano/Staff archives)

Assembly Bill 1084, authored by Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, would prevent charter schools that do more than 80 percent of their teaching online from being operated by for-profit companies or hiring them to facilitate instruction. If passed and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, the legislation would effectively put companies like K12 out of business in the Golden State.

“Our taxpayer dollars should be spent in the classroom to help our students, not used to enrich a company’s shareholders or drive up its profits,” Bonilla said in an interview.

But K12 spokesman Mike Kraft railed against the proposal, calling it “another cynical effort to take away the rights of parents to choose the way their kids are educated.”

“This bill is nothing more than a PR effort designed to appease big money special interests that hide in the shadows, harming California families,” Kraft wrote in an email, alluding to the support teachers unions have given to similar legislation in the past.

“Today, more than 14,000 California children attend virtual public charter schools, many in the Assemblymember’s own district,” Kraft added. “How many of their families has she spoken with before deciding to try to take away their choice?”

Before the newspaper’s two-part investigative series was published in April, Bonilla said, she didn’t know how wide the achievement gap was between students enrolled in K12’s California Virtual Academies and those who attend other public schools. But the more she learned about the company’s track record, the more she felt motivated to act.

The series highlighted research that shows online schools’ hands-off learning model isn’t appropriate for most children and found that accountability for student performance is sorely lacking. In fact, 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 them.

The stories also showed that the online schools are not really independent from K12, as the company claims. The academies’ contracts, tax records and other financial information suggest that K12 calls the shots, operating the schools to make money by taking advantage of laws governing charter schools and nonprofit organizations.

Earlier this month, another bipartisan group of lawmakers responded to the newspaper’s findings by calling for a wide-ranging state audit of for-profit charter schools.

“We’re already more than half way through the legislative session, so I knew we had to act quickly,” Bonilla said. “This bill is focused, targeted and designed to get through the legislative process this year.”

Because deadlines for introducing new legislation have already passed, Bonilla had to “gut and amend” another bill so that her new measure could move forward as soon as possible.

For the measure to advance, it must be approved by the Senate Education Committee before lawmakers break for the summer in early July. After they return in August, the bill would need to clear a floor vote in the Senate, a policy committee in the Assembly and an Assembly floor vote within a matter of weeks.

Assemblyman Roger Hernandez, D-West Covina, authored similar legislation last year, but Brown rejected Assembly Bill 787, writing in his veto message: “I don’t believe the case has been made to eliminate for-profit charter schools in California.”

The governor went on to state that “the somewhat ambiguous terms used in this bill could be interpreted to restrict the ability of nonprofit charter schools to continue using for-profit vendors” such as textbook publishers or transportation providers.

Bonilla said she doesn’t know if Brown will support AB1084 — he typically doesn’t reveal his views on pending legislation before squashing it or signing it into law. But Bonilla said she attempted to address the governor’s concern about ambiguity by specifying in her bill that online charter schools can’t hire for-profit companies for instructional services. So the schools could still contract with publishers and private transportation companies.

“Profit doesn’t belong in public education, and taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be spent on for-profit instruction,” said Bonilla, who will be termed out in December. “This has been going on here for years, and it has to stop.”

To reach the governor’s desk by the end of August, AB1084 will likely need support from powerful interest groups such as the California Teachers Association and the California Charter Schools Association. The CTA sponsored Hernandez’s bill, and while spokeswoman Claudia Briggs said the union would need more time to review Bonilla’s bill before taking a formal position, she said it sounded like “a bill we could get behind.”

Emily Bertelli, a California Charter Schools Association spokeswoman, has previously said the organization would support legislation that bans for-profit companies such as K12 from operating charter schools.

Asked to comment on AB1084, Colin Miller, the association’s acting senior vice president for government affairs, said the group is still evaluating the impact of the proposal’s language.

“The association has been committed to operational transparency, authorizer accountability and quality academic performance for all charter schools,” Miller said. “But we also want to ensure that optimal flexibility is maintained. We hope to work with the author to find the right solution.”

Contact Jessica Calefati at 916-441-2101. Follow her at Twitter.com/Calefati.

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