Online schools: Susan Bonilla shelves bill after interest groups water it down

Online schools: Susan Bonilla shelves bill after interest groups water it down

Former California Virtual Academies student Elizabeth Novak-Galloway, 12, plays a video game on her laptop in her home in San Francisco on.
Dai Sugano — Bay Area News Group

By Jessica Calefati, Bay Area News Group

Posted:
08/30/16, 8:09 PM PDT

Updated: 4 hrs ago

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California Virtual Academies teacher Julianne Knapp teaches her students during her online class on at a public library in San Jose.
Dai Sugano — Bay Area News Group

SACRAMENTO >> Legislation that originally sought to ban online charter schools from hiring for-profit firms to provide management or instructional services stalled Wednesday in the state Senate almost two weeks after the author substantially amended and watered down the measure.

Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, a Concord Democrat, introduced Assembly Bill 1084 in response to the Mercury News’ investigation of K12 Inc., the publicly traded Virginia company behind a profitable but low-performing network of “virtual” academies serving about 15,000 students across the state.

The legislation cleared the Senate Education Committee in June on a party line 6-2 vote after a spirited debate about the role private companies should play in public education.

But substantial opposition from the company whose operations she sought to rein in and disagreement between the state’s largest teachers union and an influential charter schools advocacy group about the bill’s goals forced Bonilla to modify its language, removing all references to rules for online schools.

In an interview Tuesday, Bonilla said she carried the bill to ensure that public money for schools is used to educate students, not to enrich corporate shareholders. She said she also had hoped the legislation would boost online schools’ accountability. In the end, however, even the stripped-down version drew unexpected opposition from a school employees union and Republican lawmakers and had to be shelved.

“The bill started out targeting online charter schools because that is where we have witnessed this problem most,” said Bonilla, who is leaving the Legislature this year because of term limits. But “as we delved deeper into the details, it became apparent that because of the complex structures of these organizations, getting to the bad actors would be challenging.”

The newspaper’s stories revealed that K12 reaps tens of millions of dollars annually in state funding while graduating fewer than half of its high school students and that kids who spend as little as one minute during a school day logged onto K12’s software may be counted as “present” in records used to calculate the amount of funding the schools get from the state.

The two-part series 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.

In the months since the newspaper published its findings, state Controller Betty Yee launched an audit of the K12-managed California Virtual Academies. And following a probe by the state Attorney General’s Office, K12 agreed to a $168.5 million settlement with the state over claims it manipulated attendance records and overstated its students’ success.

A spokesman for K12 could not be reached for comment on Bonilla’s decision to shelve AB 1084. But an analysis of the legislation prepared by Senate staff members shows the company didn’t oppose the latest version of the measure, which would have required all charter schools to operate as nonprofits.

The reason is that since K12 is technically a “vendor” of the schools it controls, its operations in California wouldn’t have been impacted by the measure at all.

In the weeks since the Senate Education Committee’s hearing on the bill, Bonilla had been working closely with the California Teachers Association and the California Charter Schools Association to craft bill language that satisfied both powerful interest groups. And although the groups agree that for-profit companies like K12 shouldn’t be allowed to run charter schools in this state, they disagreed on strategy.

“We tried for weeks to negotiate something with Ms. Bonilla,” said Jed Wallace, the charter group’s executive director. “What we were trying to do was related, but different.”

The union wanted to keep Bonilla’s original concept of a broad ban. But the charter group supported a more “surgical approach” that would have prohibited companies from having any role in the selection, interview or appointment of a charter school’s board members; barred them from developing, proposing or approving a school’s annual budget or expenditures; and limited the number of teachers the firm could employ or manage directly.

The version of the legislation Bonilla abandoned Wednesday was the result of “compromise” between the two groups, she said, adding that she hopes another lawmaker committed to charter school accountability picks up next year where she left off.

“(My work) sets a firm baseline from which to pursue further legislative fixes in the future,” Bonilla said.

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