Company with ties to NC virtual school accused of misleading parents in California

Posted 4:53 p.m. yesterdayUpdated 5:57 p.m. yesterday

Raleigh, N.C. — A company with ties to a North Carolina virtual charter school has reached a multimillion-dollar settlement with the state of California over claims it manipulated attendance records, misled parents and overstated the academic progress of students at its online charter schools in that state.

The Virginia-based, for-profit company K12 Inc. has admitted no wrongdoing but will pay $8.5 million to California as part of the settlement.

K12 helped start the North Carolina Virtual Academy, a taxpayer-funded online charter school that launched last year and serves about 1,400 students at any one time. The company provides the school with curriculum and other materials but does not operate the school, according to NCVA’s head of school Joel Medley.

NCVA is governed by a board of directors made up of local community leaders, parents and state educators who oversee academics, staffing and other items for the school. Medley said it’s unfair to compare NCVA to K12-affiliated schools in other states.

“We’re not California. We need to be careful with generalization,” he said, noting that states have different laws and policies for how online charter schools are run. “This has had no impact on us. We’re continuing to do business as normal.”

North Carolina debuted two virtual charter schools last AugustNCVA and North Carolina Connections Academy, which has ties to Pearson, a London-based education company. The schools were launched as part of a four-year pilot program to determine whether virtual charters can succeed in North Carolina.

Their first year has been marked with questions about their high student withdrawal rates. In March, a report to the State Board of Education found that about 500 students, or about 26 percent of those who had signed on to take courses, had withdrawn from each school in the first five months of operation.

Virtual charter school leaders, including Medley, say those numbers are misleading because some students plan to take online classes for only a brief period.

In a letter to state school board members in March, Medley said “higher withdrawals are not a testament to a virtual school’s quality but rather the nature of the online model.” He pointed to virtual schools in other states, including Florida, which he says have higher withdrawal rates.

He urged people to be patient with NCVA.

“With this being a pilot, we’ve got four years. Give us four years,” he said. “Give it time.”

Charter School Must Pay California Millions

By DON DEBENEDICTIS 

     LOS ANGELES (CN) — The operator of 14 online charter schools in California must pay the state $8.5 million, provide $160 million in debt relief and reform itself to resolve charges of false advertising and using misrepresentations to increase its taxpayer funding.     The settlement should end a July 8 lawsuit the attorney general filed against Virginia-based K12 Inc. and its 14 California schools, and a 2012 whistleblower lawsuit against K12 and its California Virtual Academy @ Los Angeles.     The profit-seeking K12 and its “virtual,” or online, schools, misrepresented their students’ achievements, test scores, class size, individualized instruction and parent satisfaction, the state says in its Superior Court complaint.     All 14 California defendants are named a variation of “California Virtual Academy”: California Virtual Academy @ San Mateo, California Virtual Academy @ Los Angeles, and so on. All 14 are organized as, or operated by, nonprofit California Public Benefit corporations.     “K12 ‘provides substantially all of the management, technology and academic support services in addition to curriculum, learning systems and instructional services’ for the virtual school defendants,” the attorney general says in the lawsuit, without specifying what she is quoting in the interior quotes.     The complaint continues: “The virtual school defendants receive funds from the State of California every year to pay for the education of the approximately 13,000 students attending these schools. Pursuant to the agreements, the virtual school defendants pay significant management and technology fees to K12 based on a percentage of the total funding the virtual school defendants receive.”     The fees include the cost of using K12’s software to take the Internet classes, for which students must pay, despite the defendants’ offer of a free education, according to the state.     Also, K12 et al. advertised that graduates would qualify for the University of California and California State University campuses, though they did not offer classes in several areas required for UC admission, according to the complaint.     At K12’s direction, the 14 schools inflated their daily attendance to collect unjustified funding from the state Department of Education: They credited students with a full day at school for logging in to class for as little as one minute, according to the whistleblower lawsuit.     “All children deserve, and are entitled under the law, to an equal education,” Attorney General Kamala Harris said in a statement. “K12 and its schools misled parents and the State of California by claiming taxpayer dollars for questionable student attendance, misstating student success and parent satisfaction, and loading nonprofit charities with debt.”     Harris put the total value of the settlement at $168.5 million because the agreement requires K12 to expunge about $160 million in so-called “balanced budget credits” the company provided the online schools under their contracts. Harris called the $160 million debt relief.     But in an angry retort, K12’s CEO said the company never sought or expected to collect on the credits, which he called subsidies, not debts.     “The attorney general’s claim of $168.5 million in today’s announcement is flat wrong,” Stuart Udell said in a statement. “Despite our full cooperation throughout the process, the Office of the Attorney General grossly mischaracterized the value of the settlement just as it did with regard to the issues it investigated.”     Udell put the value of the settlement at only $2.5 million: the amount K12 will pay to resolve claims it inflated attendance figures. It will pay another $6 million to cover the costs of the attorney general’s investigation and to fund other “enforcement cases to protect the rights of children” by the office, according to the main settlement document.     K12’s attorneys, Timothy Hatch with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in Los Angeles and Peter Wald with Latham & Watkins in San Francisco did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did the attorney for the charter schools, Paul C. Minney, with Young, Minney & Corr in Sacramento.     K12 did not admit wrongdoing or liability in the settlement, but it had been under fire for some time. In addition to the attorney general’s months-long probe, the California Department of Education was monitoring it, and the San Jose Mercury News published a series of investigative stories on it this spring.     The case began with a whistleblower lawsuit filed under seal in 2012 by a teacher from the California Virtual Academy @ Los Angeles. Susie Kaplar claimed she had been fired for refusing to pad her attendance figures. Because she filed the suit on behalf of the state, the attorney general’s office was able to take it over and bring its own suit.     The settlement agreement for her lawsuit includes the $2.5 million payment on attendance data. Under state law, Kaplar should collect an undisclosed portion of the settlement. She also will receive $80,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees.     Kaplar’s attorney, J. Mark Moore in Canoga Park, did not return a call seeking comment.     The California Charter Schools Association, which usually supports charter operators, praised the attorney general’s actions.     “CCSA condemns the predatory and dishonest practices employed by K12, Inc. to dupe parents using misleading marketing schemes, siphon taxpayer dollars with inflated student attendance data, and coerce [the nonprofit schools] into dubious contracting arrangements,” the association said in a statement.     It also endorsed legislation pending in Sacramento to prevent for-profit companies from controlling or operating charter schools.

Halt expansion of virtual schools because of poor academic results, report says

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on April 25, 2016 at 11:06 AM, updated

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Michigan’s virtual schools largely lag behind traditional brick-and-mortar schools, and lawmakers should stop or slow their growth until reasons for their poor academic performance have been identified and addressed, according to a new report.

On average, virtual schools have low graduation rates, perform poorly on state standardized tests, and have high student-to-teacher ratios, according to the report, from the National Education Policy Center, a nonpartisan education research organization based at the University of Colorado.

“We need to go back to the drawing board,” said Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University who co-authored the report. “We need to bring in researchers, we need to bring practitioners, and we need to decide on how to make a model that will work for the public.”

The report examined the performance of 57 full-time virtual schools and seven blended-learning schools, which include a mix of online and classroom instruction. Standardized test data were available for about 20 of Michigan’s 57 full-time virtual schools, the report shows. In addition to Michigan, the report includes data on the nation as a whole.

Enrollment in virtual schools has risen in recent years, driven in part by new instructional technology and growth in the online charter school sector, which in some instances has pumped significant dollars into advertising and marketing to attract students.

In 2012, Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation that incrementally lifted the cap on the number of cyber charter schools allowed in Michigan. Currently, the state’s charter school authorizers – K12 school districts, community colleges and public universities – are allowed to have up to 15 cyber charter schools. Enrollment is capped at about 31,000 students.

Related: Three years later, jury still out on Michigan’s cyber school expansion

This school year, Michigan has roughly 12,751 students in virtual schools – that includes traditional public schools as well as charters – and just over 1,000 in blended learning schools, Miron said.

Most Michigan students enrolled in virtual schools attend an institution operated by for-profit management company, Miron said. The same is true nationally, where 77.4 percent of all enrollment in virtual schools is at institutions operated by private education management organization, according to the report.

Michigan’s two largest virtual schools – Michigan Virtual Charter Academy and Michigan Great Lakes Virtual Academy – enroll a combined 4,830 students, the report shows. Both are managed by K12 Inc., a Virginia-based for-profit company that is one of the largest providers of online education in the U.S.

At Michigan Virtual Charter Academy, which is based in Grand Rapids but serves students statewide, 35.4 percent of students met and exceeded English language arts standards. That’s 12.7 percentage points lower than students statewide, according to the study.

In math, 13.7 percent met and exceeded standards – 22.2 percentage points lower than students statewide, according to the study.

K12 Inc. could not be reached for comment.

Jared Burkhart, executive director of the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers, said another factor affecting the overall picture of virtual school performance is that such schools were originally intended to serve struggling students who are looking to make up classes they failed.

“Half of the student population in a virtual school for a long time was a drop out student,” he said. “We’re still kind of seeing the results of that in the numbers as well.”

When asked about the report’s suggestion to limit the growth of virtual schools, Burkhart said: “We already have a cap on the number of online (charter) schools we can have. So it’s not like it’s an unfettered growth.”

Miron says the reasons for the lackluster academic performance are numerous. That includes a significant amount of student turnover from year-to-year, as well as high student-to-teacher ratios, he said.

In Michigan, the student-to-teacher ratio ranged from eight at Dearborn Heights Virtual Academy, to 54.6 at Michigan Virtual Charter Academy, to 90 at Waterford Cyber Academy, according to the report.

“The obvious thing is you hire more teachers and you have more individualized construction,” Miron said. “You have more contact with students. That’s what has to happen, and it doesn’t happen.”

Brian McVicar covers education for MLive. Email him at bmcvicar@mlive.com or follow him on Twitter

Enrollment open for online school, California Virtual Academy @ San Diego

Wednesday, March 30, 2016 courtesy Education 0 comments

Education

Enrollment for San Diego area students in grades K-12 is now open for the full-time, tuition-free, online public school, California Virtual Academy @ San Diego (CAVA@ San Diego). The public school option uses the engaging, award-winning K12 curriculum. Students who enroll in CAVA@ San Diego receive an individualized education experience designed to their learning style and needs.

CAVA@ San Diego is part of a network of 11 schools in California that use the K¹² online curriculum to offer students in grades K–12 an exceptional learning experience. Families enroll in CAVA@ San Diego for a wide variety of reasons. Some students are advanced learners, motivated to increase their knowledge beyond the basic course offerings, while others are athletes or performers looking to balance a full schedule. Innovative technology combined with a strong partnership between families and teachers makes it possible to focus on each student’s unique academic needs, and gives a growing number of San Diego students a powerful educational option to reach their true potential.

“The teachers, parents, curriculum and school community all come together at CAVA@ San Diego to create a truly well-rounded educational experience for each child,” Katrina Abston, Senior Head of Schools for California Virtual Academies. “More than being unique because of our flexible virtual school setting, CAVA@ San Diego stands out because of our focus on individualized learning.”

Students who enroll at CAVA@ San Diego receive an individualized learning program that includes web-based lessons along with age-appropriate instructional materials – books, videos, CDs and other hands-on tools and resources.

Teachers for CAVA@ San Diego are California-credentialed and provide instruction, guidance and support, and regularly interact with students and parents via email, web-based classrooms, online discussions, phone and face-to-face meetings.

In addition to the academic focus, CAVA@ San Diego provides several social engagement opportunities for students. The school year is filled with numerous field trips, school activities, community service opportunities and weekly face-to-face meet-up for students.

CAVA@ San Diego is accepting enrollment of students for the 2016-2017 school year. For a complete list of information sessions or to learn more about enrolling, visit http://cava.k12.com or call 866-339-6787.

About California Virtual Academy@ San Diego
California Virtual Academy@ San Diego is a tuition-free, online public school serving students in kindergarten through 12th grade who are residents of Imperial, Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties. California-credentialed teachers deliver lessons in an online classroom platform provided by K12 Inc. (NYSE: LRN) with a combination of engaging online and offline coursework—including a wide variety of books, CDs, videos, and hands-on materials that make learning come alive. CAVA @ San Diego provides opportunities for advanced learners, and prepares students to be college and career ready at graduation. Learn more at http://cava.k12.com.

This article is a courtesy release.

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This author is used when OC Breeze publishes news releases from other organizations.

Education leaders question why virtual school remains open

Posted 9:52 p.m. yesterdayUpdated 9:54 p.m. yesterday

By SHEILA BURKE, Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The legislature’s failure to shut down an academically troubled virtual school run by a for-profit corporation has left some education leaders wondering whether Tennessee lawmakers really want to fix schools or have sold out children to powerful special interests.

A move that would close the Tennessee Virtual Academy, and ban others like it, failed this week in the legislature. The effort came on the heels of withering criticism of the school by former state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman — a longtime proponent of school choice— who called TNVA Tennessee’s worst school. Huffman, in a recent online essay, said his inability to close the school was one of his biggest failures.

The school has been a disaster since it opened in 2011. Students have performed so poorly on standardized tests that even former supporters have publicly condemned it.

Critics of the school say lawmakers are bowing to pressure from K12 Inc., the Herndon, Virginia-based company that operates TNVA. K12 is one of the largest providers of online school curricula in the country.

Records show that K12 has spent between $285,000 and $575,000 on lobbying since 2010. The company donated more than $75,000 in direct campaign contributions since 2011.

Huffman, in his essay, said K12’s lobbyists went into overdrive after the former education commissioner sounded the alarm when the school’s first-year test scores came in. TNVA ranked dead last in terms of academic gains out of more than 1,600 schools across the state. Huffman said he tried to meet with academic specialists, but what he got instead was a meeting with a lobbyist who “refused to acknowledge that the school had struggled.”

An official with K12 disputes Huffman’s characterization. Jeff Kwitowski, a spokesman for K12, said that Huffman did meet with school officials and had plenty of opportunity to meet personally with parents, teachers and students but never did.

The school’s survival reflects a larger problem at the Legislature, according to Will Pinkston, a top aide to former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen and a member of the Nashville school board.

“The majorities in both the House and the Senate have sold out public education because of the pressure of lobbyists and under the lure of massive amounts of campaign contributions,” Pinkston said.

One prominent lawmaker who has supported the school said lobbyists have nothing to do with it. Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, said he believes in all virtual schools — not just TNVA — because they give students, especially those in rural districts, opportunities they wouldn’t normally have, such as taking Advanced Placement classes. Brooks said he sponsored legislation that will force TNVA to close if it doesn’t perform well over time, so it is being held to a standard.

But Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, said that even if the school does close, there is a risk that taxpayers could be on the hook if a similar school opens. Stewart said he could not convince lawmakers to support his efforts this year to ban all virtual schools operated by for-profit companies.

At TNVA, kids stay at home and learn on their computers. Technically, they are considered public school students enrolled in a school in rural Union County.

It’s not clear how much money taxpayers have spent on the school. Union County officials didn’t have a figure available; however, Sen. Delores Gresham said last year that it had already cost $43 million.

The school, which any Tennessee child from kindergarten to eighth grade can attend, has been ranked at the bottom of schools across the state in academic gains every year of its existence. About 600 students are enrolled this school year, down from 3,000 in 2012-13.

“We made some changes and feel like maybe some of those changes will help us,” Union County school director James Carter said of TNVA.

Supporters of the school have said it enrolls a high number of poor and disabled children.

But state figures show that many other public schools across the state have even higher numbers of kids who are economically disadvantaged or have special needs.

Kwitowski, the spokesman for K12, said the school is not for everybody. But for some students, he says, TNVA is the only alternative to a traditional public school.

Virtual Academy in Greenfield seeks new content provider

By ANITA FRITZ

Recorder Staff

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

(Published in print: Thursday, December 17, 2015)

GREENFIELD — The Massachusetts Virtual Academy is looking at its options as its contract with Virginia-based K12 Inc. curriculum provider expires in June 2016.

Carl Tillona, executive director of the Greenfield-based virtual school, said MAVA received three proposals after issuing a request for proposals last month.

K12 was one of them, and Connections Academy and Edgenuity were the other two, said Tillona.

“We’re going to choose what’s best for our students,” said Tillona. “We want the absolute best curriculum for our students.”

The first diploma-granting virtual school in the state has a current enrollment of 651 students. Tillona said that includes 19 students from Greenfield. Local school districts pay $6,700 per student per year for those who choose the virtual route with MAVA.

Tillona said the virtual school, which teaches students across the state via the Internet, serves many different types of students, including those with medical problems, athletes who have to train during the day, and students who find brick-and-mortar schools are not a good fit for them.

In 2010, Greenfield School Committee voted to open the state’s first virtual school, but that same committee vote 7-0 unanimously to shut it down in 2013.

The virtual school, which is a public school controlled by the state and structured like a charter school, opened shortly after, changing its name to Massachusetts Virtual Academy, which is headquartered in Greenfield.

“There are a lot of great curriculum providers for virtual schools now, a lot more than when MAVA first selected K12,” said Tillona.

He said the contract that is expiring was for three years. He said he believes the next contract will be for one year with an option to extend it.

“We want to have the best curriculum alongside the best teachers in Massachusetts,” said Tillona. “To do that, we need to explore all of our options.”

The virtual academy currently takes an active role in all of the teacher hiring and training, and also in the curriculum choices that K12 provides, said Tillona.

The virtual school intends to continue those practices to ensure that its instructors, teaching materials and techniques meet and exceed state standards, he said.

Tillona said can’t be sure what, if any, changes there will be, because a provider has not been chosen, yet.

“We’ll have to see,” he said. “We could choose K12, or we could choose someone else. We could choose two providers. We just don’t know, yet.”

In October 2014, the Massachusetts Board of Secondary and Elementary Education placed the virtual school on a 20-month probation, after the department raised concerns about its academic programs and compliance with regulatory requirements. That probation will end in June 2016 — at the same time its new contract will begin.

Tillona said the virtual academy has worked hard to provide the best education possible to its students.

For more information about Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield, visit www.mava.k12.com.

An Ed Commissioner’s Confession: How I Tried (and Failed) to Close the Worst School in Tennessee

Kevin Huffman served as Tennessee’s education commissioner from 2011-2015, and in this essay outlines problems he experienced while overseeing the Tennessee Virtual Academy, operated by K12 Inc. To read K12 Inc.’s full response to this essay, please click here.

n April 2011, a short while after I became Tennessee’s education commissioner, the state legislature passed a bill allowing “virtual schools” to open in Tennessee. The concept was forward-looking: Allow public school districts, at their discretion, to open and run online schools.

These e-schools could, over time, take advantage of technological advances in instruction, and they could serve children who couldn’t be served properly by traditional brick-and- mortar schools.

The bill passed amid a flurry of end-of-session horse trading. Some legislators expressed concerns about virtual education generally, and others were worried that the bill included for-profit operators, but as often happens at session’s end, it chugged along largely under the radar. I was new and not fully looped in, but my educational philosophy has always been platform-agnostic; I was less concerned about the kind of school, more concerned about whether the school was good.

From these modest beginnings and with the help of an unscrupulous operator, an inept school district, and the generally screwed-up politics of education, the worst-performing school in Tennessee opened and remains open to this day.

It remains one of the biggest failures that happened on my watch.

Year one: Abject Failure

The legislation allowed any school district to establish a virtual school, and most legislators, in good faith, envisioned local districts establishing niche programs for kids who were being bullied or seriously ill or had other special needs. A few districts did just that, enrolling a couple dozen kids here or there and experimenting with online courses.

It was quickly evident, however, that the bill’s main beneficiary was K12, Inc., a for-profit company running online schools and programs in multiple states across the country.

While K12 was not itself eligible to open a school, it could get in the door by finding a school district willing to host and “open” the school. Geography was irrelevant; since the school was virtual, it could enroll kids anywhere in Tennessee.

Furthermore, because Tennessee — like most states — weighs its school funding formula to give more money to lower-wealth areas, a virtual school could game the funding system by opening shop in a district that receives a larger portion of state funding. Luckily for K12, the perfect host awaited.

Union County is a small rural county in East Tennessee, 40 minutes and a different world up the road from Knoxville. There is almost no infrastructure in Union County — just a series of small, dying ventures off the highway. The county schools are oddly isolated from the state mainstream. When I visited, I found fundamental misunderstandings about state rules and practices that didn’t exist in other districts.

As sometimes happens in small and isolated communities, the school board and district administration were an absolute disaster. In 2011, the district was in dire financial straits, having struggled to manage funds and oversee its superintendent.  In the ensuing two years, the district would pinball between two superintendents with threats of litigation and a divided administration driving hiring and firing. It was difficult to remember who was in charge without looking it up. Looking it up was difficult because the website wasn’t updated.

For a company like K12 Inc., Union County, Tennessee was a godsend. Mismanaged, nearly bankrupt, and yet pulling in per-pupil dollars well above the state-funded average, it was the perfect host for a statewide virtual school. K12 seized the opportunity, offering Union County a small cut of the profits from enrolling other districts’ students, and the school quickly opened its virtual doors in August 2011.

The Tennessee Virtual Academy, TNVA as it is known, hired a principal who sat in Union County and managed the school. The school hired licensed teachers who lived all over Tennessee, helping students via phone and email. The curriculum came out of corporate headquarters, cribbed from the virtual schools the company ran in other states.

Unsurprisingly, TNVA was beset by operational challenges from the outset. The school lacked the systems to quickly and effectively enroll students, leaving some kids dangling while their parents complained to the state. It underestimated the challenges of identifying students needing special education services. TNVA struggled with the basic paperwork required of all schools in the public school system. (Read K12 Inc.’s response to this article, and its account of the state’s efforts to close the Tennessee Virtual Academy, right here)

While these struggles raised some eyebrows, they also could be chalked up to growing pains. After all, the school had opened in a very short window, was working in a new state and new school district, and was attempting to serve kids all over the state.

As commissioner, TNVA was most visible to me through the complaints of superintendents in other school districts. K12 Inc. was running radio ads in major media markets encouraging kids to sign up for the school, and numbers were booming. Superintendents around the state claimed that students were dropping out of their districts, enrolling in the virtual school, and receiving lousy services.

Some told tales of students leaving district schools for TNVA, only to re-enroll later, discouraged and even farther behind academically. Union County, for its part, complained that the other districts were trying to block students from enrolling by slow-walking the paperwork, or out-and-out telling parents they weren’t allowed to leave their home districts. Everywhere you looked, fingers were pointed.

I was skeptical of the other districts’ complaints. From my vantage point, superintendents often complained when parents looked for better schooling options because the district lost the money that traveled with the students. I had become, to my detriment, overly cynical about these complaints. I wanted to wait and see how the school year played out.

The year came and went, marked for me with controversy around teacher evaluations, our federal No Child Left Behind waiver, charter school expansion, and the other marquee issues of education reform. Every day brought another bruising political battle, and I was burning through my political capital at an alarming rate. As testing results rolled in, I was anxious for some good news.

Tennessee’s testing results weren’t just good, they were great. Across the state, students made gains in every subject area and at every grade level. Teachers, principals and superintendents were breathing a sigh of relief. We celebrated the districts and schools with the best results, and started to plan for the next year.

But there was a major hiccup in Union County. The school district laid an egg and was designated “in need of improvement” under our federal waiver. Worse yet, the Tennessee Virtual Academy had received the lowest possible growth score — a 1 on a 1-to-5 scale for our value-added system, which measures teachers and schools not by students’ final scores but by how much they have grown in a year.

As I looked deeper, I became increasingly alarmed. Since there was no legislative limitation on growth, the school’s enrollment had surged to around 2,000 kids. It was not only a low-performing school, it was one of the biggest in the state and it was growing rapidly.

The TNVA had single-handedly doubled the size of the Union County school district, and this single school was on track to become larger than many districts in the state.

Tennessee historically has struggled in educational outcomes, but it was and is a national leader in data. Value-added scoring, seen by many as a fairer way to gauge academic progress because it takes into account where the student started, was invented in Tennessee and has been refined over two decades here. The state was one of the first to produce a sophisticated online public report card providing reams of data about schools to parents and the public.

As the TNVA data became more granular, the extent of the academic disaster came into stark relief. The school’s value-added score was dead last – out of more than 1,600 schools with scores –  in the state.

K12 Inc. and Union County’s Tennessee Virtual Academy was, quite literally, the worst school in Tennessee.

Year two: Clipping TNVA’s Wings

Inside the state education department, we were alarmed. We had two main strategies. First, we would try to get TNVA and K12 to improve its outcomes. We had no real leverage since it was technically a district-run school, but we could at the very least call them to the carpet, push them for answers and solutions, and offer supports. After all, Union County was woefully unequipped to lead the charge.

Second, we needed legislation to curb the school’s growth and set up an end-game if the school continued to fail. The virtual school bill needed a backstop.

Our first meeting about the school’s performance was a disaster. K12 brought its lobbyist rather than academic specialists. The lobbyist refused to acknowledge that the school had struggled. Instead, he pointed to the school’s self-administered internal tests, and claimed that the students were doing fine.

He disputed the state test results, and didn’t understand value-added scores. We showed him the official state data, and he just claimed it wasn’t valid. The lobbyist brought his own (less reputable) data and refused to concede the obvious point that TNVA was failing.

The meeting depressed me; if the school would not concede that it was failing, there was no hope that it would make changes in order to get better. Amazingly, after finishing dead last in Tennessee in growth, K12 seemed intent on staying the course.

I had no interest in pulling my punches, and when reporters reached out asking about the Tennessee Virtual Academy, I told them the results were terrible and unacceptable.  This seemed as plain as day. Nonetheless, the statements got me in hot water.

K12’s high-priced Tennessee lobbyists went into overdrive, complaining bitterly about me to the governor’s staff and to legislative leaders. A couple of Democratic legislative candidates used the school’s results in campaign literature. The lobbyists then used the campaign ads to take shots at me to Republican leaders, calling me a loose cannon who was undercutting Republicans.

Inside the department, we focused on part two of our strategy — legislative action. We proposed language that would bar virtual schools from growing if their results were bad. More importantly, we suggested that any school that scored at the lowest level for two consecutive years could be closed down by the state.

Our logic was simple: If K12 Inc. was in denial about its results, this bill would force it to figure out how to improve results or face closure. At the time, my belief was that K12 Inc., with all of its financial resources and its national footprint and data, could surely improve its school if it was so inclined. We could give them two years to get it together.

We introduced the bill and K12 Inc. was irate. The company ramped up its lobbying efforts, working all angles.  At the national level, K12 sponsored Republican Governors Association events, which meant they gave money, and their CEO Ron Packard and lobbyists wandered freely at conferences. Gov. Bill Haslam and his staff found themselves cornered by K12 Inc. at various events. K12’s sponsorships similarly gave them access to me at education conferences.

In Nashville, they increased their lobbying muscle. I was called to a meeting with several executives from national headquarters and a D.C.-based lobbyist — a well-known man whose name opens doors. (K12 said it could not respond or verify Kevin Huffman’s account of this meeting without knowing the lobbyist’s name; Huffman declined to identify him) My blood pressure started to rise as the lobbyist patiently explained that I was confused about the data and results. Speaking to me as if I were a sweet but confused child, he said he wanted me to hear the true story. When K12’s executives spoke, they used the same talking points as their other lobbyists.

I felt myself start to lose my temper.

Why, I asked, am I constantly talking with K12’s lobbyists instead of the people who might actually try to make the school better? Is anyone doing anything to make the school better? Have any of you actually been to Union County to meet with the incompetent local leadership that you are partnering with? And don’t you think it’s problematic that you have this many problems with me — one of the most pro-market, pro-choice state commissioners in the country?

It was one of only two or three meetings during my tenure in which I decidedly lost my cool. One staffer came down the hall to peek in at the end of the meeting to see why I was so agitated.

The bill to limit the growth of virtual schools was a battle. For starters, TNVA did indeed have a number of high-need students with tough circumstances, and a virtual school was a tremendous resource for these folks. K12 highlighted the stories of children with chronic illness or students who had been bullied at their home schools. These stories were real and the families’ angst and needs were real. The traditional system was failing them and virtual education had thrown them a lifeline.

Unfortunately, though, this was a very small percentage of TNVA’s students; they were the sympathetic face of an otherwise failing venture.

After a couple of months of negotiations, the legislation passed, with minor language adjustments. None of us would have guessed it at the time, but these language changes would ultimately undercut our ability to close the school.

Instead of a two-year, forward-looking time frame for measuring virtual schools, the legislation gave virtual schools three years prior to facing closure. However, the three years were inclusive of the past year’s results. No problem, we figured— that’s essentially the same thing as we proposed.

It was now May of 2013, and the school’s second year came to a close. The school failed again. It was again, not only a Level 1, but near the bottom of the state rankings.

Strike three?

The school would now enter a death-watch year in 2013-14. If it scored another Level 1 on growth, we would have the opportunity to close it.

K12’s first strategic maneuver was to attempt a work-around. The company was working on a deal with another low-wealth, rural Tennessee county — Campbell County. Since the location of a virtual school is irrelevant, if K12 Inc. simply opened up shop in a different school district, it could theoretically transfer all of the kids, start the “failure clock” again, and proceed as if nothing had happened.

The Campbell County mayor and others lobbied hard — they had been promised both money for the school, and also a free curriculum for adult education that the mayor was anxious to tout to the citizenry.

It was a clever effort and a genuine legal loophole. The mayor and leaders in Campbell County saw K12 as a financial resource, while we saw it as a means of evading accountability. The school never opened; the district had timing and quality issues with the paperwork, and K12 was forced to look to different strategies.

In the process, though, I added to my list of enemies. The folks in Campbell County were livid, and they blamed me for costing them money.

We told K12’s lobbyists that I only wanted to talk about the school’s performance and hear how it would get better. I was sick of talking about politics. And so, Packard, the CEO of K12 Inc., came to visit me in Nashville without lobbyists — a peace offering of sorts designed to show that K12 was serious about taking on academic improvements. He asked for advice. He took notes. It was a very positive meeting. I maintained hope.

Ultimately, the meeting was irrelevant. Packard resigned his leadership in January 2014. The TNVA proceeded on the same course.

TNVA failed again in 2013-14. It was a Level 1 for the third year in a row. It was eligible for closure.

Union County pushed hard for the school to have one more year. Our state data team ran an analysis on the performance of new students compared to returning students at TNVA, and found a ray of hope. The school’s new enrollees were performing abysmally — they were a low Level 1. Returning students — in their second or third year at the school — performed about average, a Level 3. There was an argument that the school could serve kids adequately if the kids had time to adjust.

The problem, though, was that TNVA hemorrhaged kids, with the highest turnover any of us had ever seen at a school. So, while one could argue that kids just needed time to adjust, the school bled out so many failed students each year that it obviated the good.

We huddled internally. Union County and K12 had ginned up an intense parent lobbying campaign and the governor’s office and department of education were getting letters and emails begging to keep the school open.

In the department, I consistently preached a mantra of being data-driven, and doing what the data told us. I overthought this and I got too cute.

I thought we had a potential compromise solution: We would let the school stay open for another year as long as it did not enroll any new students. This way, the kids who were likely to do OK — the returning students — would stay enrolled and would not need to hunt for a new school. But unless and until the school improved, it would not enroll new students. Jimmy Carter, Union County’s superintendent, readily agreed. This was a fair idea.

If you are still reading this article, you likely can guess that this did not happen. We discovered that Union County had already enrolled hundreds of new students, despite knowing the school was subject to closure. When we asked them to un-enroll these students, they refused, holding a school board vote and posturing that, damn the torpedoes, they were going to serve these kids (almost none of whom were actually Union County residents).

The state has limited and clearly delineated powers, and un-enrolling kids from district schools is not on the list. We had only the blunt instrument of closing the school — we had no ability to control enrollment. By the time we discovered that the district had enrolled hundreds of new kids, the school year was about to begin. If we closed the school, we would have to throw more than a thousand families into a panicked search for options.

And so we blinked.

Closing the school, for real. Right?

We sent Union County a letter announcing that the Tennessee Virtual Academy would stay open for one more year, but it would be closed at the end of the 2014-15 school year. We were giving all of the families a one-year notice so they could make other plans.

We portrayed this as decisive action, even though there would be a one-year lag time. Yes, K12 would have one more legislative session to try to strong-arm legislators to keep the school open, but we were confident nobody would fight for a school that habitually failed. My guts churned, though. We could try to spin it, but the reality was: I had been played.

As the new school year began, supporters of the TNVA were working hard behind the scenes to demonize me on a more personal level. An anonymous right wing blog mysteriously switched positions and began to champion the virtual school cause. Union County’s state senator looked for every opportunity to slam me publicly.

Supporters also threw around a new marketing claim: TNVA was the “most improved” low-performing school in the state. Around 100 schools in Tennessee had scored at a Level 1 in growth for three years in a row. Since TNVA had been (by far) the lowest-performing of these schools at the outset, it had improved more than the others. Voila — the most improved school!

Parents at the school filed a lawsuit claiming that the state lacked the power to close the school. I laughed when our head of policy told me. After all, we had passed a bill specifically to give me this power. This case was a no-brainer.

As fate would have it, my own tenure came to a close before TNVA’s. After the governor was re-elected in November 2014, I announced my own resignation, effective January 2015. It was time for me — I had taken too many bullets and was too full of holes to keep pushing aggressive reforms. Our student achievement results were going up, but it was time for me, in Tennessee education parlance, to “go to the house.”

My wife had a baby in March, I was working half-time, and my days were filled with long runs, modest work, and lots of family time.

On an otherwise unremarkable day of quasi-vacation, I got an email with a link to an article claiming that I had lied to the legislature about virtual schools in 2013. The article was on a blog written by a TNVA-paid consultant. (K12 denies that it in any way funded the blogger) I clicked through to a YouTube video that showed me clearly testifying in 2013 that the performance rules for closing a virtual school would not be applied retroactively. In other words, under this interpretation, the 2011-12 school year could not count against the virtual school. This would mean that the school was not yet subject to closure.

I called the department to check in. I have my flaws, but lying to the legislature isn’t one of them. Furthermore, we were incredibly precise about this particular bill and I found it hard to believe that I would have misspoken.

Nothing to worry about, I was told. The video clip is completely misleading and out of context. The video was from my testimony on the original bill language — not the amended language that actually passed. When I testified, the language was indeed about prospective test scores. The language that passed, more than a month later, was different. The video is a joke, I was told — a desperate attempt to confuse clear legal language.

This gave me a small amount of comfort. We would win in court. I obviously wasn’t pleased that TNVA associates were calling me a liar. But, at least TNVA would soon stop harming Tennessee kids.

On Friday, June 12, Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled in favor of the school. She cited confusion saying it wasn’t clear what the statute actually allowed. She cited the out-of-context video of my testimony as contributing to the confusion. The school could stay open another year. The state could not intervene and close it down until at least summer 2016.

The department’s legal staff broke the news to me. “We’ll appeal, right?” I asked plaintively. Every court loser asks this when given bad news. No, they said, telling me what I already knew. An appeal wouldn’t be heard until after the school year opened. Nobody wants to close a school in the middle of the year — it just isn’t fair to parents. The school would stay open for 2015-16.

Still Open For Business

This past summer, the state released the school results from the 2014-15 school year. The Tennessee Virtual Academy earned a Level 1 in growth for the fourth year in a row. It clocked in at #1312 out of 1368 elementary and middle schools in the state. It is no longer the most improved lousy school in Tennessee. It is just plain lousy. It is, over a four-year time, arguably the worst school in Tennessee.

K12 Inc. lives on in Tennessee. The Tennessee Virtual Academy opened its online doors again in August. State officials tell me that they aren’t thinking about other legal steps. After all, if and when the school fails again this year, they will close it down.

I will believe it when I see it.

 

he K12 saga raises a lot of difficult questions for me. Is it possible for a for-profit company to run schools? Our very best charters all over the country are non-profits, and I see little evidence of for-profits succeeding in the school management business. I may be platform-agnostic, but the data is telling a compelling story on this one.

How do we encourage innovation while still holding the bar on quality? The virtual school concept almost certainly has a place in the future of American education. But how long should an “innovative” school be allowed to fail?

What is the responsibility of the state as a regulatory enterprise, even in a choice environment? None of the parents signing up for TNVA were forced into the school — it is a school of choice.

And yet, the “marketplace” fails when we are not able to ensure that parents know that the school they are choosing has a running track record of failure. Clearly, there is a critical regulatory role, and we cannot simply assume that an unfettered choice environment will automatically lead to good outcomes.

In theory, K12, Inc’s stock should be hammered by its terrible performance in Tennessee, but it’s actually up in 2015. And why wouldn’t it be? The corporate shareholders aren’t looking for student results — they are looking for K12 to expand and grow and add more students.

Nobody asks me for stock advice, but I say: Buy! Buy K12 Inc.! It is the rarest of breeds — a company utterly impervious to failure. It fails again and again, and yet it lives and breathes!

No doubt, I will have ample opportunity to talk about this with their lobbyists at my next education conference.

To read K12 Inc.’s full response to this essay, please click here.

Virtual schools coming to every Alabama school system by 2016-2017

(Julie Bennett/jbennett@al.com)

Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-MontgomeryMike Cason | mcason@al.com

Online courses are not new to Alabama public schools, but lawmakers say the state is barely tapping the potential.

The Legislature is trying to spark a surge in virtual school options.

Every Alabama school system would be required to establish a policy to offer some level of virtual school for high school students by the 2016-2017 academic year under a bill lawmakers passed Thursday.

“It's not a solution for everybody,” said Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, sponsor of the bill. “But for a certain population of students, it's a really good option.”

Alabama launched the ACCESS distance learning program during Gov. Bob Riley's administration. Students can take classes that aren't available at their schools, like advanced courses and electives.

ACCESS uses some live video feeds of classroom teachers. But most of the courses are taught through web-based programs, said Malissa Valdes-Hubert, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

Students turn in their work and communicate with teachers online.

As of April 24, more than 27,000 students were enrolled in ACCESS, which is available in all high schools and some middle schools.

Brewbaker said he hears complaints from superintendents about ACCESS, including the quality of courses.

The Department of Education, in response to the senator's criticism, said it “continually strives to make ACCESS courses as engaging and rigorous as possible” and responds when problems are identified by teachers.

Brewbaker's bill would create a task force to study and make recommendations on improving ACCESS.

But while improving the state program is important, Brewbaker said it's vital for local school systems to launch their own initiatives not necessarily bound to the state program.

“Local boards have to do something because online education is here to stay,” Brewbaker said. “In a couple of years, you'll know what the best models are.”

A student enrolled in a virtual program would count as attending the local school in determining per-student funding.

Virtual school students would be required to take the same standardized assessments as other students.

They could participate in sports and other extracurricular activities at the school they are zoned for.

Local school boards would have wide latitude. They could hire a commercial vendor, contract with another school board or a university or rely on ACCESS.

“We tried not to be too specific as to what that would look like because we recognize that every single school district in the state of Alabama is unique in its origin and its community,” said Rep. Ed Henry, R-Hartselle, who handled Brewbaker's bill in the House of Representatives.

The Alabama Association of School Boards had a task force study virtual schools and supports the legislation, AASB Executive Director Sally Howell said.

“I think this will be an incubator of great ideas,” Howell said.

She said it's important that school systems can set their own criteria for student participation.

She said virtual school would probably not be the best option for a student who struggles with reading, for example.

Howell said the virtual school option could encourage some parents who have taken their children from public schools to return.

Brewbaker said some parents have turned to private school or home school for reasons other than academics, reasons that could be negated by virtual school.

“They may not want their kid on a bus for two hours, or may have safety concerns,” Brewbaker said.

The House passed the bill 82-20 on Thursday, sending it to Gov. Robert Bentley.

The governor had not signed it into law as of Friday. The governor's office said it was reviewing the bill.

Alabama and national politics

Ramsey wants to give virtual school one last chance | Nashville Post

Ramsey wants to give virtual school one last chance

Published April 22, 2015 by Andrea Zelinski

A last ditch effort to keep open a floundering virtual school failed Tuesday in the Senate, although Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said he hopes to convince the administration to cut the school one last break.

“I firmly believe that that school needs to be given another chance,” Ramsey told the Post. “Now, one more year is all I’d give them. If they didn’t have the achievement then, I’d cut their legs out from under them, so to speak.”

Senators voted 17-13 against an amendment sponsored by Sen. Frank Niceley to give Union County-based Tennessee Virtual Academy a one-year reprieve to avoid closure if the school’s scores improve this year. The amendment, proposed on the floor and not timely filed, needed a two-thirds majority.

However, Niceley attempted to add the language to a separate bill sponsored by Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham that would allow students from outside the school zone to attend a school taken over by the state Achievement School District.

“This school has actually taken advantage of these students,” said Dolores Gresham, chair of the Education Committee and an advocate for school choice who fought off Niceley’s amendment. “Fairness, compassion and common sense will tell you that these students have not been served well. To let it go on for another year is outrageous.”

According to the state report card, fewer than one in four students are on grade level in math, and 42 percent are at or above grade level in reading language arts. Growth in student test scores ranked one out of five, the lowest score possible.

Proponents for the school argue Tennessee Virtual Academy, run by for-profit operator K12 Inc., shouldn’t be treated any differently than traditional public schools which can fall among the lowest-performing of the state but not face closure. They argue the school should have one more year to increase test scores.

Ramsey said he walked into the Senate planning to support Niceley’s effort to give the school one last chance. Ramsey acknowledged his vote in favor probably would have garnered a few more votes in the legislation’s favor, but said he changed his mind after the debate twisted in procedural knots after learning Niceley's had other ways to bring his measure to the floor instead of amending another member's bill. The practice is legal under the Senate rules but was frowned upon in debate Tuesday night.

“I'm still, honestly, going to work with the administration to see if we can't get them to extend another year,” said Ramsey.

Oops… reporting error leads to perfect review of teachers at state’s largest online school

21 hours ago

Credit SpecialKRB / flickr

More than 2,800 students log online to attend Michigan Virtual Charter Academy. The state’s largest virtual school is also one of its worst performing districts. Yet every single teacher was rated “highly effective” for the last two years, according to data recently released by the state.

All K-12 public school teachers are evaluated in Michigan, but each district has its own evaluation system. “Highly effective” or “ineffective” labels can mean completely different things depending on where you teach.

Overall, 38% of all Michigan teachers were rated highly effective last school year.

There are nearly 30 districts that rated all of their teachers highly effective. But most of them are tiny, with just a few teachers.

Michigan Virtual Charter Academy is an outlier, reporting 221 highly effective teachers. All four administrators are reportedly rated highly effective too.

It’s also an outlier because of student performance. The cyber school is a “priority” school. Most districts that report 100% highly effective teachers also have pretty good student outcomes.

“Priority” schools are in the bottom 5% of the statewide Top-to-Bottom School Rankings. The rankings take into account data on student achievement, improvement, and achievement gaps in standardized test scores.

But it turns out, the data the district reported to the state were inaccurate.

An attorney for Michigan Virtual Charter Academy says someone accidently reported the data incorrectly to the state. Turns out, the district only had 135 teachers. Someone accidently included a bunch of non-teachers in the count. Only eight are highly effective after all. That’s 6% of the teaching staff. All four administrators are actually rated “effective.”

At this point, it is too late to correct the data in the state’s system.

Connie Morse is with the Center for Educational Performance and Information. CEPI collects data schools supply the state. Much of it, including the teacher effectiveness ratings, is displayed on MiSchoolData.org.

Morse says analysts at CEPI regularly run data through a computer model, looking for anomalies. She says this case is an example of that.

When the data just don't look right, Morse says CEPI contacts the person who sent it in. The head of the school district is also contacted, she said. There is no mandate that the districts respond or attempt to fix the data, if it is incorrect. She says they do it as a favor to districts to try to prevent this kind of mistake.

K12 Inc, the for-profit company that manages the cyber school, referred media questions to Jean Broadwater, the district’s head of schools. The charter district’s attorney said Broadwater was not authorized by the school board president to comment on this story.

Broadwater wasn’t at Michigan Virtual Charter Academy in the 2012-13 school year. So the attorney said it’s unclear whether there was a reporting error that year, too.

Officials at the charter school’s authorizer, Grand Valley State University, declined to comment.

Apparently, the same employee that misreported MVCA’s data about teacher evaluations also incorrectly reported the same data at the state’s second largest cyber school, also managed by K12 Inc.