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

0 Comments

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.

Subscribe to Home Delivery and SAVE!

K12 Inc.: California Virtual Academies’ operator exploits charter, charity laws for money, records show

By Jessica Calefati, jcalefati@bayareanewsgroup.com© Copyright 2016, Bay Area News Group

Posted:
 
04/18/2016 04:48:09 AM PDT

Frustrated with the quality of their neighborhood schools, parents, teachers and civic leaders have founded hundreds of California charter schools, combining locally sourced ingenuity with the public funding that state law allows them to command.

California’s largest network of online academies is different: Although the schools are set up like typical charters, records show they’re established and run by Virginia-based K12 Inc., whose claims of parental involvement and independent oversight appear to be a veneer for the moneymaking enterprise.

The company — the subject of a two-part investigative series by this newspaper — says the schools operate independently and are locally controlled. But the academies’ contracts, tax records and other financial information suggest something entirely different: K12 calls the shots, operating the schools to make money by taking advantage of laws governing charter schools and nonprofit organizations.

“What this company has done may make sense from a business perspective, but to me, it’s a sham,” said Renee Nash, a business and tax attorney and a member of the Eureka Union School District’s Board of Trustees.

“K12 is clearly taking advantage of the laws in California,” she said, “and the Legislature needs to put a stop to it.”

California law is silent on whether for-profit firms are even allowed to run charter schools. So before applying 14 years ago to open the state’s first online academies, K12 treaded cautiously into a new market, creating a series of nonprofit organizations whose names match those of the schools.

That means each California Virtual Academy is considered by the IRS to be a charitable organization that need not pay taxes, even though K12 effectively controls the schools by providing them with all academic services.

The structure, accounting experts say, makes it tough to tell where the nonprofit ends and where the company begins.

Mike Kraft, K12’s vice president for finance and communication, disputes that characterization. He said the nature of the relationship between the company and the schools is articulated clearly in documents.

“The contracts between K12 and each (academy) outline the parties’ obligations and expressly provide that the governing body of the school retains final decision-making authority and full control,” he said. Still, Kraft acknowledged that K12 personnel “may at times provide newly forming boards that lack any staff with administrative assistance on the organizational documents.”

Tax and education records show that K12 employees started each of more than a dozen online academies in California, even though the applications they filed to open the schools described the founders as a “group of parents,” none of whom were named. For several years, company employees even signed the nonprofit schools’ tax filings.

‘The law is clear’

Federal tax law prohibits charitable organizations from operating to benefit a person or company. And to that end, the online academies’ articles of incorporation vow that the schools’ money won’t be used to enrich “any shareholder or individual.”

“The law is clear: Charities may not use their resources to promote a business, even if that business’ services are helpful,” Eric Gorovitz, a San Francisco attorney who specializes in nonprofit tax law, said, speaking generally about charitable organizations. “And if the violation is bad enough, a charity could lose its exemption.”

According to the nonprofit’s application for tax-exempt status, California Virtual Academy at San Mateo has a board of directors whose members should be willing to cut ties with the company if they feel the school is getting a raw deal. Indeed, the application specifies that all agreements between K12 and the school are the result of “arm’s-length” negotiations.

IS AN ONLINE SCHOOL CASHING IN ON FAILURE?

Bay Area News Group

IS AN ONLINE SCHOOL CASHING IN ON FAILURE?

Bay Area News Group

But a review of minutes from the 2014-15 school year’s board meetings and records of the board’s relationship to administrators hand-picked by K12 suggest the board has little or no independence from the company. A K12 employee led the board meetings, and all 35 resolutions she encouraged the board to endorse won unanimous approval.

The board’s open public meetings are held during the workday in a conference room or around an administrator’s desk in the Daly City-based Jefferson Elementary School District, which authorized the academy’s charter. And board members rarely attend the meetings in person. They usually just call in from home.

All told, the board spent an average of 13 minutes in each meeting.

The board has four members. Two of them, President Don Burbulys, a resident of Soquel, in Santa Cruz County, and Stephen Warren, the board’s secretary, who lives in Riverside County, are related to high-ranking school administrators, who, under K12’s contract with the academy, are selected by the company.

Burbulys is married to Laura Terrazas, dean of student services, and Warren is related to Academic Administrator April Warren, according to a brief filed by teachers. Terrazas and April Warren on Sunday did not return calls or emails seeking comment. Burbulys, Stephen Warren and the board’s other two members have also declined requests for comment.

When K12 sought approval in 2009 to open a charter school for Contra Costa County students that featured a mix of online schooling and traditional classes in a brick-and-mortar setting, Mt. Diablo Unified School District denied the application, citing concerns about the company’s role in running the proposed school day to day.

“Not only does the charter school delegate all charter school-related operations, management and administrative functions to K12 California, but it inappropriately gives K12 California control over areas that should be the responsibility of school site staff and the charter school’s governing board,” the Mt. Diablo school board wrote in a report.

But Contra Costa County, as well as Alameda County residents, can still enroll in a K12 school because there’s a California Virtual Academy in San Joaquin County, and the state allows online students from adjoining counties to enroll.

A close look at the contract between California Virtual Academy at San Mateo and K12 raises questions about why a truly independent board of directors would ever agree to the terms, said Luis Huerta, a Columbia University expert on online schools.

Under the contract, which Huerta reviewed for this newspaper, K12 handles almost every aspect of the public school’s operations. It’s responsible for writing curricula, hiring principals, recruiting students and much more. In exchange, the company is entitled to compensation that can amount to as much as 75 percent of the school’s public funding.

Jefferson Elementary school trustees and administrators are tasked with reviewing the contract, but no state agency is required to examine it.

The school’s application for tax-exempt status states “the charter school determined that it paid no more than fair market rate for the services.” Yet in a bizarre twist, the rates outlined in the contract routinely exceed what the school can afford — by more than 25 percent.

K12 requires all its California academies to pay only what they can without going into debt. The company then issues “credits” to cover the balance.

California Virtual Academy at San Mateo, for example, hasn’t been able to pay its bill in full in a decade. So since 2007, K12 has given the school $8 million in credits. Over the past 10 years, the company has doled out more than $130 million in credits to all the California schools it operates.

Unique arrangement

Accountants and financial analysts interviewed by this newspaper, including several who specialize in school finance, say they’ve never seen anything quite like the arrangement between K12 and the public online academies.

“If the schools can’t cover their expenses and need K12 credits every year to balance their budgets, then the contingent liability to K12 just keeps growing,” said Charlene Podlipna, an accountant who works for Freeman & Mills, a Los Angeles-based litigation consulting firm.

Writing down the operating losses of the schools it manages in California and across the country has allowed K12 to reduce its taxable income by $179.5 million over the past three years, according to the company’s most recent annual report. That raises questions about why K12 consistently charges more than the schools can pay.

Kraft insisted the company doesn’t receive a tax deduction for forgiving the debts of the schools it operates. But when the newspaper presented Kraft with K12’s most recent Securities and Exchange Commission filing and asked him to explain whether K12 wrote off the losses, his answer was hardly straightforward: “A company’s tax provision is based on its net income. A component of net income is the revenue that a company records. Anything that increases or decreases revenue, and ultimately impacts net income, would therefore impact the taxes owed by that company. K12 is no different than any other company in this respect.”

Katrina Abston, K12’s senior head of schools for the academies, defended the credits, saying they “provide a high level of protection” for the schools against financial uncertainties.

Huerta, however, said taxpayers could lose out in the end.

Typically, he said, any extra taxpayer funding on hand when a charter school shuts its doors is returned to the state’s general fund. But tucked away on one of the final pages of the K12 contracts is a clause that requires a school that’s closing to repay the company with any money it has left — meaning it’s highly unlikely the state would recoup anything.

“These companies are exploiting the gray in the law and using clever legal teams to skirt public accountability,” Huerta said. “Taxpayers and policymakers should be alarmed.”

To address some of the thorny problems that can crop up when for-profit companies run nonprofit public schools, the Legislature last year approved Assembly Bill 787, authored by Assemblyman Roger Hernández, D-West Covina, that would have banned the practice.

But Gov. Jerry Brown rejected it, writing in his veto message: “I don’t believe the case has been made to eliminate for-profit charter schools in California.”

Read Part 1 of the investigation: Is online charter school network cashing in on failure?

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

What our investigation found

  • Teachers employed by K12 Inc.’s charter schools may be asked to inflate attendance and enrollment records used to determine taxpayer funding.
  • Fewer than half of the students who start the online high schools earn diplomas, and almost none of them are qualified to attend the state’s public universities.
  • K12’s heavily marketed online model has helped the company reap more than $310 million in state funding over the past 12 years.
  • Students who spend as little as one minute during a school day logged in to K12’s school software may be counted as present in records used to calculate the amount of funding the schools get from the state.
  • About half of the schools’ students are not proficient in reading, and only a third are proficient in math — levels that fall far below statewide averages.
  • School districts that are supposed to oversee the company’s schools have a strong financial incentive to turn a blind eye to problems: They get a cut of the academies’ revenue, which largely comes from state coffers.
  • K12 Inc. statement about investigation of California schools

    Bay Area News Group

    Posted:
     
    04/18/2016 08:34:44 PM PDT Updated:   about a month ago

    K12 Inc. released the following statement Monday in response to a Bay Area News Group investigation published Sunday and Monday into the Virginia company’s network of online charter schools in California.

    HERNDON, Va., — This week, The San Jose Mercury News published two articles about K12 Inc. and the California Virtual Academies (CAVA) — eleven independent public charter schools — that are inaccurate, incompletely researched, and missing the balanced input of many parents whose children have attended and been served by these schools.

    Most concerning, these stories cite several politically-driven claims about the CAVA schools that are substantially similar, and in some cases identical, to allegations made by the California Teachers Association (CTA) in their multi-year campaign to unionize the CAVA schools. These issues have been addressed and in many instances roundly refuted. The paper fails to disclose that the few teachers quoted in the article represent a small subset of CAVA teachers organizing on behalf of CTA. The union opposes charter schools, and has also lobbied for legislation aimed at shutting down CAVA schools and other similar public schools of choice.

    Parents of children with a variety of educational needs choose CAVA schools: students with special needs who are not receiving the services they require at their local schools; children who struggle in traditional schools; students who are bullied; academically gifted children; and many more. We believe parents know their children best, and we respect the choices they make.

    The Mercury News articles are inconsistent with the positive experiences of thousands of California parents who thoughtfully choose CAVA schools for their children. They ignore the experience of the majority of CAVA teachers and educators who are passionate about their work, committed to these schools, and who reject the self-serving goals of the CTA. And they fail to represent fairly the volunteers–many of whom are themselves parents of CAVA students–who serve on the independent, nonprofit CAVA schools’ boards. The Mercury News should have considered the input of a wider sample of parents and teachers.

    K-12 public schools are highly regulated entities, and as a services provider to public schools across the U.S. we take compliance very seriously. Each CAVA school is governed by a separate and independent charter school board. Each school follows state and federal regulations, and operates under California’s Independent Study program designed for non-classroom-based educational programs. These schools are open, transparent, and accountable. They operate under multiple layers of oversight at the state and local levels, undergo annual independent financial and programmatic audits, and have strong records of compliance.

    K12’s mission is to serve our school partners and to assist them in making student achievement the first goal. Where there are deficiencies, we make improvements. If mistakes are made, we correct them. We work constantly to enhance our products and academic services–and, in turn, to facilitate student success. K12 is an organization of educators, teachers, and professionals who are dedicated to providing quality services to the schools and students we are privileged to serve. Unfortunately, these articles do not fairly tell that side of the story.

    California Virtual Academies defend online charter schools as model of school choice

    By Jessica Calefati, jcalefati@bayareanewsgroup.com

    Posted:
     
    04/19/2016 05:26:24 AM PDT

    In a vigorous defense, officials behind the California Virtual Academies branded this news organization’s investigation into their online charter schools “wrong and insulting” and an attack against a model of school choice.

    But critics of K12 Inc., the Wall Street-traded company that runs the profitable but low-performing academies, called for greater oversight of its practices.

    The newspaper’s two-day series examined how K12 Inc., reaps tens of millions of dollars in state funding while graduating fewer than half of the students enrolled in its high schools.

    Elizabeth Novak-Galloway, 12, who used to be an A student, received C s because she was missing work she never knew had been assigned, her mother said. (Dai Sugano, Bay Area News Group)
    (
    Dai Sugano
    )

    In a letter sent to teachers Monday afternoon, the schools’ academic administrator, April Warren, called the newspaper’s investigative series “a gross mischaracterization of all of the work that you all do on a regular basis.” But despite their broad condemnations, neither Warren nor other school officials alleged any specific factual inaccuracies in the series.

    The investigation, published Sunday and Monday, also reported that teachers have been asked to inflate attendance and enrollment records used to determine taxpayer funding.

    K12 says the schools operate independently and are locally controlled. But the newspaper’s review of the academies’ contracts, tax records and other financial information suggest the Virginia-based company calls the shots, operating the schools to make money by taking advantage of laws governing charters and nonprofit organizations. K12’s heavily marketed model in California has helped the company collect more than $310 million in state funding over the past 12 years.

    State Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, said the performance of any publicly financed school should be a matter of concern for taxpayers — and lawmakers.

    “Charter schools were created to give parents and students an alternative to how public schools were delivering instruction,” Beall said Monday. “But it has never been the state’s intent to permit online for-profit charter schools to fail students or gouge taxpayers. Students must not be viewed as cash cows.”

    However, the company, a top administrator for the online school network and the board of directors for one of the academies serving Bay Area students all released similarly worded statements Monday, blasting the newspaper’s investigation.

    Together, members of the California Virtual Academy at San Mateo’s board of directors called allegations that they have “any other interest except for our children” and their families both “wrong and insulting.”

    The statement said the network of online schools has for years endured similar attacks on its track record from charter opponents and the California Teachers Association, which is attempting to unionize employees at the schools.

    “Parents want choice in education,” the statement said. “Students deserve options because one size does not fit all. We love our school.”

    The board insisted in its statement that each of the K12-partner schools are “governed independently by their nonprofit school boards made up of California residents including parents, educators, and local community leaders.”

    The newspaper’s investigation revealed that two of the four board members at the San Mateo County school — board president Don Burbulys and member Stephen Warren — are related to top academy administrators who are hand-picked by K12.

    Burbulys, who is married to Dean of Students Laura Terrazas, lives in Soquel in Santa Cruz County, and Warren, who is the brother-in-law of April Warren, lives in Riverside County.

    Defending her brother-in-law’s oversight of her work, April Warren wrote in her letter to teachers that “relatives are permitted to serve on a California nonprofit board” and that “several school districts have people who sit on their boards that are either parents, employees or are related to employees of the district that they serve.”

    The California Charter Schools Association and California Teachers Association on Monday said the Legislature should take a hard look at whether for-profit companies like K12 should be operating schools in California and whether the state can do more to ensure charter schools are overseen properly.

    “When taxpayer money is used to fund education, those dollars should go to help kids,” said California Teachers Association President Eric Heins. “In this case, we have no idea how the company is spending our tax dollars and it’s not right. This is pretty basic stuff.”

    Online charter schools only work with a fraction of the kids enrolled in California’s roughly 1,200 charters, but that doesn’t mean they should be held to a lower standard of accountability, said Emily Bertelli, a spokeswoman for the California Charter Schools Association, which publicly called for the closure of a K12-run school in 2011 only to see the school reopened with a new name under the same authorizer.

    Former Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said in an interview Monday that none of the newspaper’s findings surprised him. He said he’d seen many of the same issues unfold in his state, where he tried, and failed to shut down K12’s Tennessee Virtual Academy because of poor performance.

    “This company’s efforts to grow bear no relationship whatsoever to the quality of their results in California and across the country,” Huffman said.

    “You would hope that an online virtual school — especially one run by a for-profit company — would only have the opportunity to grow with really high-quality results,” Huffman said. “K12 isn’t coming close to meeting a high bar in terms of quality.”

    One Redwood City parent who contacted this newspaper, saying the investigative series “hit close to home,” said his son, who is now a sophomore in college, took K12’s advanced courses, earned A’s and B’s and finished at the top of his class when he was a student at one of the company-run California schools. But when his son applied to a local community college, he was stunned to learn he had to take remedial math and English courses because he was so far behind.

    Other parents, however, contacted the newspaper to defend the schools, saying the online learning model was vital to their sons’ and daughters’ academic success.

    Maureen Behlen said her son thrived in K12’s school because she “put everything into it,” spending several hours a day teaching him and guiding him through his coursework. She said an online school isn’t the right fit for families who can’t devote as much time to the program as she did.

    “Would you send a bunch of kids into a classroom with no teachers? Of course not,” said Behlen, who lives in the foothills in East San Jose. “There has to be an adult responsible for overseeing what they’re learning, and if there isn’t, you’re setting them up to fail.”

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

    K12 Inc. statement about investigation of California schools

    Bay Area News Group

    Posted:
     
    04/18/2016 08:34:44 PM PDT Updated:   about a month ago

    K12 Inc. released the following statement Monday in response to a Bay Area News Group investigation published Sunday and Monday into the Virginia company’s network of online charter schools in California.

    HERNDON, Va., — This week, The San Jose Mercury News published two articles about K12 Inc. and the California Virtual Academies (CAVA) — eleven independent public charter schools — that are inaccurate, incompletely researched, and missing the balanced input of many parents whose children have attended and been served by these schools.

    Most concerning, these stories cite several politically-driven claims about the CAVA schools that are substantially similar, and in some cases identical, to allegations made by the California Teachers Association (CTA) in their multi-year campaign to unionize the CAVA schools. These issues have been addressed and in many instances roundly refuted. The paper fails to disclose that the few teachers quoted in the article represent a small subset of CAVA teachers organizing on behalf of CTA. The union opposes charter schools, and has also lobbied for legislation aimed at shutting down CAVA schools and other similar public schools of choice.

    Parents of children with a variety of educational needs choose CAVA schools: students with special needs who are not receiving the services they require at their local schools; children who struggle in traditional schools; students who are bullied; academically gifted children; and many more. We believe parents know their children best, and we respect the choices they make.

    The Mercury News articles are inconsistent with the positive experiences of thousands of California parents who thoughtfully choose CAVA schools for their children. They ignore the experience of the majority of CAVA teachers and educators who are passionate about their work, committed to these schools, and who reject the self-serving goals of the CTA. And they fail to represent fairly the volunteers–many of whom are themselves parents of CAVA students–who serve on the independent, nonprofit CAVA schools’ boards. The Mercury News should have considered the input of a wider sample of parents and teachers.

    K-12 public schools are highly regulated entities, and as a services provider to public schools across the U.S. we take compliance very seriously. Each CAVA school is governed by a separate and independent charter school board. Each school follows state and federal regulations, and operates under California’s Independent Study program designed for non-classroom-based educational programs. These schools are open, transparent, and accountable. They operate under multiple layers of oversight at the state and local levels, undergo annual independent financial and programmatic audits, and have strong records of compliance.

    K12’s mission is to serve our school partners and to assist them in making student achievement the first goal. Where there are deficiencies, we make improvements. If mistakes are made, we correct them. We work constantly to enhance our products and academic services–and, in turn, to facilitate student success. K12 is an organization of educators, teachers, and professionals who are dedicated to providing quality services to the schools and students we are privileged to serve. Unfortunately, these articles do not fairly tell that side of the story.

    California Virtual Academy: San Mateo board’s statement about investigation

    Bay Area News Group

    Posted:
     
    04/18/2016 03:12:14 PM PDT Updated:   about a month ago

    The board of directors from the California Virtual Academy at San Mateo issued the following statement Monday in response to a Bay Area News Group investigation published Sunday and Monday into the online charter and its partner schools run by for-profit K12 Inc.

    Recent articles in The Mercury News are a gross misrepresentation of our school and its operations, and the independence of our nonprofit charter school board.

    We are members of the California Virtual Academy @ San Mateo public charter school board. Our school is part of one of the CAVA public charter schools, each governed independently by their nonprofit school boards made up of California residents, including parents, educators, and local community leaders who are committed to providing families with educational options for their children.

    Alleging that we have any other interest except for our children and the CAVA families is both wrong and insulting. We take our role as governing board members very seriously. We are volunteers. We are not paid. Many of us have children in the CAVA schools. We have experience serving on other nonprofit boards. Our school has its own independent attorneys who guide us to ensure we are in compliance with state charter school regulations. We provide input and work together with our school administrators, just like other charter schools.

    The allegations made in these articles about our schools are inaccurate. They are the same attacks made repeatedly by opponents of public charter schools, including by the California Teachers Association, an organization that has been aggressively attempting to unionize all eleven of the CAVA network of schools. The union has disparaged our schools and lobbied for legislation directly aimed at shutting our schools down and taking these options away from our parents, students, and teachers.

    Our parents are extremely thankful that CAVA is an option for their children. Thousands of families choose CAVA schools. Many students are succeeding. We see hundreds of students graduating from CAVA schools each year. Unfortunately, the paper all but dismissed the successes. Further, the paper never asked why parents are leaving their local schools and choosing CAVA schools. Parents would not choose alternatives if their local school was working for their child. Sadly, the paper completely ignores the positive experiences of the vast majority of CAVA families and teachers, electing instead to quote a small handful of critical voices. It is exactly what opponents of charter schools have done for years. This is classic case of unfair and biased journalism.

    Parents want choice in education. Students deserve options, because one size does not fit all. We love our school. We are proud to represent and stand with CAVA’s educators and families. We are proud of the achievements and the hard work of our students, staff, and volunteer board members.

    — Don Burbulys, President, CAVA @ San Mateo

    Erin Wong, Board Member, CAVA @ San Mateo

    Christa Enns, Board Member, CAVA @ San Mateo

    Stephen Warren, Board Member, CAVA @ San Mateo

    California Virtual Academies defend online charter schools as model of school choice

    By Jessica Calefati, jcalefati@bayareanewsgroup.com

    Posted:
     
    04/19/2016 05:26:24 AM PDT

    In a vigorous defense, officials behind the California Virtual Academies branded this news organization’s investigation into their online charter schools “wrong and insulting” and an attack against a model of school choice.

    But critics of K12 Inc., the Wall Street-traded company that runs the profitable but low-performing academies, called for greater oversight of its practices.

    The newspaper’s two-day series examined how K12 Inc., reaps tens of millions of dollars in state funding while graduating fewer than half of the students enrolled in its high schools.

    Elizabeth Novak-Galloway, 12, who used to be an A student, received C s because she was missing work she never knew had been assigned, her mother said.
    Elizabeth Novak-Galloway, 12, who used to be an A student, received C s because she was missing work she never knew had been assigned, her mother said. (Dai Sugano, Bay Area News Group)
    (
    Dai Sugano
    )

    In a letter sent to teachers Monday afternoon, the schools’ academic administrator, April Warren, called the newspaper’s investigative series “a gross mischaracterization of all of the work that you all do on a regular basis.” But despite their broad condemnations, neither Warren nor other school officials alleged any specific factual inaccuracies in the series.

    The investigation, published Sunday and Monday, also reported that teachers have been asked to inflate attendance and enrollment records used to determine taxpayer funding.

    K12 says the schools operate independently and are locally controlled. But the newspaper’s review of the academies’ contracts, tax records and other financial information suggest the Virginia-based company calls the shots, operating the schools to make money by taking advantage of laws governing charters and nonprofit organizations. K12’s heavily marketed model in California has helped the company collect more than $310 million in state funding over the past 12 years.

    State Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, said the performance of any publicly financed school should be a matter of concern for taxpayers — and lawmakers.

    “Charter schools were created to give parents and students an alternative to how public schools were delivering instruction,” Beall said Monday. “But it has never been the state’s intent to permit online for-profit charter schools to fail students or gouge taxpayers. Students must not be viewed as cash cows.”

    However, the company, a top administrator for the online school network and the board of directors for one of the academies serving Bay Area students all released similarly worded statements Monday, blasting the newspaper’s investigation.

    Together, members of the California Virtual Academy at San Mateo’s board of directors called allegations that they have “any other interest except for our children” and their families both “wrong and insulting.”

    The statement said the network of online schools has for years endured similar attacks on its track record from charter opponents and the California Teachers Association, which is attempting to unionize employees at the schools.

    “Parents want choice in education,” the statement said. “Students deserve options because one size does not fit all. We love our school.”

    The board insisted in its statement that each of the K12-partner schools are “governed independently by their nonprofit school boards made up of California residents including parents, educators, and local community leaders.”

    The newspaper’s investigation revealed that two of the four board members at the San Mateo County school — board president Don Burbulys and member Stephen Warren — are related to top academy administrators who are hand-picked by K12.

    Burbulys, who is married to Dean of Students Laura Terrazas, lives in Soquel in Santa Cruz County, and Warren, who is the brother-in-law of April Warren, lives in Riverside County.

    Defending her brother-in-law’s oversight of her work, April Warren wrote in her letter to teachers that “relatives are permitted to serve on a California nonprofit board” and that “several school districts have people who sit on their boards that are either parents, employees or are related to employees of the district that they serve.”

    The California Charter Schools Association and California Teachers Association on Monday said the Legislature should take a hard look at whether for-profit companies like K12 should be operating schools in California and whether the state can do more to ensure charter schools are overseen properly.

    “When taxpayer money is used to fund education, those dollars should go to help kids,” said California Teachers Association President Eric Heins. “In this case, we have no idea how the company is spending our tax dollars and it’s not right. This is pretty basic stuff.”

    Online charter schools only work with a fraction of the kids enrolled in California’s roughly 1,200 charters, but that doesn’t mean they should be held to a lower standard of accountability, said Emily Bertelli, a spokeswoman for the California Charter Schools Association, which publicly called for the closure of a K12-run school in 2011 only to see the school reopened with a new name under the same authorizer.

    Former Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said in an interview Monday that none of the newspaper’s findings surprised him. He said he’d seen many of the same issues unfold in his state, where he tried, and failed to shut down K12’s Tennessee Virtual Academy because of poor performance.

    “This company’s efforts to grow bear no relationship whatsoever to the quality of their results in California and across the country,” Huffman said.

    “You would hope that an online virtual school — especially one run by a for-profit company — would only have the opportunity to grow with really high-quality results,” Huffman said. “K12 isn’t coming close to meeting a high bar in terms of quality.”

    One Redwood City parent who contacted this newspaper, saying the investigative series “hit close to home,” said his son, who is now a sophomore in college, took K12’s advanced courses, earned A’s and B’s and finished at the top of his class when he was a student at one of the company-run California schools. But when his son applied to a local community college, he was stunned to learn he had to take remedial math and English courses because he was so far behind.

    Other parents, however, contacted the newspaper to defend the schools, saying the online learning model was vital to their sons’ and daughters’ academic success.

    Maureen Behlen said her son thrived in K12’s school because she “put everything into it,” spending several hours a day teaching him and guiding him through his coursework. She said an online school isn’t the right fit for families who can’t devote as much time to the program as she did.

    “Would you send a bunch of kids into a classroom with no teachers? Of course not,” said Behlen, who lives in the foothills in East San Jose. “There has to be an adult responsible for overseeing what they’re learning, and if there isn’t, you’re setting them up to fail.”

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