NASHVILLE — A Republican bill to tighten enrollment requirements for online-only schools was softened in a House subcommittee Tuesday, while a Democratic proposal to ban private companies from running them was derailed.
The House Education Subcommittee took up several virtual school bills, but the two proposals seemed to draw the most attention — particularly the banning measure.
That legislation, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville, was brought amid allegations that a privately operated virtual school directed teachers to cover up failing grades. For months now, Democratic leaders have scrutinized the Tennessee Virtual Academy, saying it needs to be held more accountable.
In a Dec. 13 email obtained by WTVF-TV, the vice principal of the academy noted high numbers of failing grades in September and October and directed middle school teachers to delete them.
"After ... looking at so many failing grades, we need to make some changes before the holidays," according to the email the television station received from an anonymous source.
A Republican parliamentary move cut off debate in the subcommittee when Stewart tried to discuss the television report and other emails he'd obtained that showed teachers at the school had been directed to delete bad grades.
Committee member Harry Brooks, who made the move, said he did so because the discussion "had nothing to do with the bill."
"We're discussing a bill in committee," the Knoxville Republican said of the measure, which failed unanimously. "We're not discussing the news."
Academy officials didn't deny the email. They said they were modifying internal grading procedures, not fixing grades.
"Consistent with our school's unique mastery-based learning model, this modification was designed to help increase student engagement by rewarding students who made an extra effort to master the material and improve their scores," the school said on its website.
"Our decision did not impact the integrity of our grading system and had no relationship to any state tests."
K12 Inc., the nation's largest publicly traded online education company, runs the academy for Union County public schools.
Under a law passed in 2011 by the Republican-controlled General Assembly, the academy began operations in the 2011-2012 school year, enrolling nearly 1,800 K-8 students from across the state. State payments to K12 are a little over $5,000 per pupil.
State officials have been questioning the K12 operation. Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman called its first-year test results "unacceptable."
State figures showed the academy fell into the bottom 11 percent of schools for student gains, as measured under the state's value-added assessment system. The cyber school scored a 1 on the 5-point scale.
"This is not a good deal for the state of Tennessee," Stewart said before Tuesday's vote.
Summer Shelton is a 6th-grade teacher with the Tennessee Virtual Academy who drove about 200 miles from Knoxville to attend the meeting and ended up testifying. She didn't address the reports of grade-fixing, but instead defended the effectiveness of online schools.
"I know you're looking at test scores, but we need time for improvement," she said. "I'm requesting that you give us a chance, because we are making a difference."
In the case of Gov. Bill Haslam's proposal to tighten enrollment requirements, the measure originally sought to cap online school enrollment at 5,000.
But the amendment proposal, which also passed unanimously, would allow beginning online schools to start with an enrollment of 1,500 and continue to expand as long as they meet performance requirements.
Haslam spokesman David Smith denied that the amendment significantly alters the aim of the administration bill on virtual schools.
"The key provisions of the bill — enhanced accountability, performance-based growth — remain," Smith said in an email. "And we appreciate the subcommittee moving it out to full committee."
Also Tuesday, an amended proposal passed 6-3 to allow charter school applicants in the state's largest school districts — Memphis and Nashville — to choose between a local school district or the State Board of Education for authorization.
The original bill applied to school districts statewide.