Local group takes aim at virtual schools

Nathan Baker • Aug 15, 2013 at 7:28 AM

Members of a local organization claim millions of dollars intended for Tennessee’s students is going to an out-of-state education company in return for substandard testing results, but corporate and school representatives say the performance measures gathered so far are inconclusive at best.

Individuals representing Save Our Schools TN, including Johnson City grandmother Janet Meek, have appeared at a number of area school board meetings in the past few months to speak out against K12 Inc., a national company holding contracts with thousands of school districts across the country to provide programming for online schools.

Meek said she dedicated her allotted public comment time at the Aug. 1 Washington County School Board meeting to describing K12’s operations because she believed not many people knew about the Virginia-based company or its role in the state’s education system.

“Nobody knows what K12 Inc. is or that they’re taking public school money for online education that is inferior in quality to our public schools and giving it to a corporation in another state,” she said Tuesday. “Our schools are struggling to make budgets, they’re laying off staff, and in the meantime, all this money is leaving the state.”

K12 Inc. is a for-profit company formed in 2000 that sells education software, textbooks, workbooks and other materials to state and local governments, billing the services as an alternative to the brick and mortar public education system.

TNVA opened with a class of approximately 1,800 students in the fall of that year, and enrollment has grown to nearly 3,000 this school year, Union County Director of Schools Jimmy Carter said in an email Tuesday.

For those students, Union County receives approximately $14 million in funding through the state Basic Education Program, 96 percent of which is paid to K12, Carter said.

But opponents to the virtual school point to last year’s dismal standardized testing scores, and reason that the taxpayer money is paying for below-average instruction.

“We paid millions last year for them to test in the 11th percentile,” Meek said. “That money needs to stay in our community, where it can be used in our schools. It doesn’t need to go into a Virginia corporation whose executives made $10 million last year.”

TNVA’s students did test in the bottom 11 percent of schools in the state for the 2011-12 school year, earning a 1 out of 5 score on Tennessee’s scale of achievement, but K12 representatives say most of the school’s students started classes late in the year, and the scores reflect more on the districts they previously attended than on TNVA.

“All students were in their first year and most transferred from another district in the state,” a statement issued by the school last year reads. “The modality for learning and the school itself were new to every student. Therefore, TNVA views the 2011-12 proficiency results as baseline scores for first year students and not an indicator of long-term performance of our school.”

According to achievement data retained by the state Department of Education, 52.9 percent of the virtual school’s 3-8 students’ scores demonstrated below a basic mastery in math and 18.9 percent scored below basic in reading and language arts. Only 16.4 percent scored proficient or advanced in math and 39.3 percent earned proficient or advanced in reading and language.

“Many of the kids in TNVA have medical issues, special needs or have not succeeded in traditional classroom (learning challenges, bullying, etc.),” K12 spokesman Jeff Kwitowski said in an email. “Parents want options and the freedom to choose.”

Questions about the efficacy of virtual schools led the state General Assembly to enact legislation this year limiting enrollment in schools that repeatedly underperform.

If an online school scores “significantly below expectations” for three consecutive years starting with the 2012-13 school year, then the commissioner of education may place enrollment caps on the school or direct it to be closed.

School-specific testing data is not yet available from the education department for last school year, but the figures that have been released show that rural Union County as a district fell by a percentage point in reading proficiency and gained a modest 0.2 percent in math.

Efforts this school year to open two more K12 online schools in the state, a K-8 and a high school under contract with Campbell County, were temporarily halted by Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman’s office, which cited incomplete application data.

The students scheduled to start classes last week were advised by the Campbell County School District to make other arrangements for the time being.

Meek said she doesn’t expect the delay to last long, and said Tennesseans will likely see more virtual schools established in the near future.

That’s why Save Our Schools invited state Rep. Gloria Johnson, a former teacher and a Knox County Democrat, to speak at an event Friday evening aimed at the growing popularity of online schools.

“She has been on the leading edge of the fight against virtual schools,” Meek said. “She’s going to share some information about what’s going on, and hopefully shed some light on K12. It should be very interesting.”

The event is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday at the Carver Recreation Center, 322 W. Watauga Ave.

Meek said the public forum will be free and is open to everyone.

Recommended for You

    Johnson City Press Videos