As State’s First Virtual School Grows, So Do Concerns
October 1, 2015
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The Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield’s student computer lab is seen in the school’s main office in Greenfield. (Hadley Green for WBUR)
At a lunchtime meeting, teachers from the Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield are swapping classroom stories between bites of salmon and roasted potatoes. It’s a late August day, the first in a week of teacher training, and these educators know the coming year will bring back some challenges they’ve encountered before in their online-teaching careers.
“In virtual it’s different. You need to be constantly checking for understanding to make sure there’s comprehension,” says Jason Martin, who’s in his third year as an English teacher at the academy. “You can’t see the kid; they can see you.”
But as teachers focus on their challenges in the online classroom, others are raising concerns about the nature of the Greenfield school itself. Based on per-pupil spending, WBUR estimates that the school received more than $4.1 million of public money for student tuition in 2014, but it ranked among the lowest performing 20 percent of public schools in the state that year. The academy has been on probation since October 2014.
Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, recommended probation then, primarily because, he told the state education board, he had “concerns regarding the academic performance and governance of this virtual school, which has declined each year since 2010.”
MAVA is the first virtual school in Massachusetts; it opened in 2010 with 217 students in kindergarten through high school. Since then, its enrollment has more than tripled, with 692 students last year.
Using a curriculum and online platform provided by K12 Inc., the nation’s largest for-profit virtual school provider, it offers a flexible structure. Students take all their classes from home, online, and can complete their coursework on their own schedule.
Students may attend a virtual school for a variety of reasons. Some are seriously ill or have emotional challenges; others travel for sports teams or have extracurricular activities that make it difficult for them to attend in person.
“I don’t think virtual schools are here to take the place of brick and mortar,” says Carl Tillona, the academy’s principal. “They’re just here to fill that very small niche of serving those students who, for whatever reason, cannot make it into a brick and mortar.”
Teachers and administrators of the Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield prepare for the upcoming school year at an August teacher training. (Hadley Green for WBUR)
In part because there are no classrooms, MAVA had the highest student-to-teacher ratio in the state: 47.2 students for each teacher last year, according to the state education department’s report on school districts. The only other ratio higher than 25-to-1 was at TEC Connections Academy, which opened last year as the state’s second virtual school. (The rankings classify both schools as “virtual school districts.”)
Teachers’ salaries at MAVA are paid out of K12 Inc.’s share of the public money that goes to the school. Last year, K12 received $2.7 million, or about 65 percent of the total, Tillona says, for those salaries as well as textbooks, computers and learning supplies. The school itself uses the rest, about $1.4 million, for an English language learners program, special education, Title I initiatives, family engagement coordinators and administrators, Tillona says.
In 2015, K12 reported spending about 64 percent of its revenue on instructional services — and 32 percent on “selling, administrative, and other expenses,” including advertising and marketing costs.
The company, which is based in Herndon, Virginia, does not break out how much it spends on marketing. Asked why, Mike Kraft, vice president of finance and communications at K12 Inc., replied, “No reason.” Kenneth Klau, the director of digital learning for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, also declined to comment on K12 Inc.’s marketing expenses.
But in 2012, USA Today estimated, the company spent more than $21 million on advertising. Of that, USA Today said, K12 spent “$631,000 to advertise on Nickelodeon, $601,600 on The Cartoon Network and $671,400 on MeetMe.com,” a social networking site.
K12 reported a net income of $9,326,000 in its 2015 annual report, on revenues of $948,294,000. Of that revenue, $852,998,000 came from K12’s public school programs nationwide.
“How much money, how much profit is K12 making on school choice?” asks Maryelen Calderwood, who chairs the Greenfield School Committee. She says K12’s lawyer and the former committee chair told her “it was none of my business.”
Calderwood has opposed using a private company for a publicly funded online school. Although it is based in Greenfield, the school is not governed by the Greenfield School Committee because it is considered its own “virtual district,” along the lines of a charter school.
“It’s part of a larger scheme to privatize public education,” Calderwood says. “It’s all linked to gathering public money and making a profit off of it.”
Critics note that most K12 schools fall short of the academic standards they’re supposed to meet.
“About 30 percent of the [K12 Inc.] schools meet their respective state expectations and have acceptable ratings as schools,” says Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University and author of a 2015 report on virtual schools. “It’s quite dismal.”
Principal Carl Tillona speaks with Sue Powers, high school family engagement coordinator. (Hadley Green for WBUR)
So why do these schools continue to spread?
“Profit,” says Miron.
“Some people think, ‘Isn’t it terrible, they’re making profit on public schools,’ ” he says. But Miron sees it differently. “They’re for-profit companies; they’re doing what they’re supposed to do,” he says.
“We just have to figure out the right incentives and oversight,” Miron argues, “so that they act on the public’s best behalf, rather than the stockholders’ personal interests.”
The education department’s Klau says the state does provide sufficient oversight of the two virtual schools here. “We do a full-fledged accountability review annually,” he says. “In addition, they submit their financials in an end-of-year annual report.”
Like MAVA, the state’s other virtual school is growing fast. TEC Connections Academy, based in East Walpole, says its enrollment jumped to 670 students this year, up from 275 last year — a 140 percent increase.
Nationally, Miron estimates, 50 to 60 new virtual schools open each year. There were 400 in the U.S. during the last school year, according to a 2015 report published by the National Education Policy Center.
“In the next fiscal year, we look to expand into states like Alabama, which passed legislation this year to allow for the formation of a statewide online charter school,” Nate Davis, K12’s chairman and chief financial officer, says in the company’s most recent earnings conference call.
“Prospects also look good in some other states like Virginia, New Jersey and Connecticut.”
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Learning Lab reports on innovation and reform in education. We’re interested in what experiments are happening in Massachusetts k-12 schools, what is being learned, and who is behind them. We want to understand how Massachusetts students will be learning two, five, and ten years from now.
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