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K12 Inc. Under Scrutiny

posted Dec 6, 2011, 11:19 PM by Common Sense   [ updated Mar 11, 2012, 5:36 AM by Clayton Trehal ]

K12 Inc., leader in the virtual school movement, under scrutiny

The company has operated a virtual school in Idaho since 2002. Published in the WASHINGTON POST BY LYNDSEY LAYTON AND EMMA BROWN. Published in Idaho Statesman BY DAN POPKEY, 12/06/11


K12 Inc. of Herndon, Va., has become the country’s largest provider of full-time public virtual schools, upending the traditional American notion that learning occurs in a schoolhouse where students share the experience. In K12’s virtual schools, learning is largely solitary, with lessons delivered online to a child who progresses at his or her own pace.

Conceived as a way to teach a small segment of the home-schooled and others who need flexible schooling, virtual education has evolved into an alternative to traditional public schools for an increasingly wide range of students — high achievers, strugglers, dropouts, teenage parents and victims of bullying among them.


For many kids, the local school doesn’t work,” said Ronald Packard, chief executive and founder of K12. “And now, technology allows us to give that child a choice. It’s about educational liberty.”Packard and other education entrepreneurs say they are harnessing technology to deliver quality education to any child.

It’s an appealing proposition and one that has attracted support in state legislatures.


But in one of the most hard-fought quarters of public policy, a rising chorus of critics argues that full-time virtual learning doesn’t effectively educate children.

Kindergarten kids learning in front of a monitor — that’s just wrong,” said Maryelen Calderwood, an elected school committee member in Greenfield, Mass., who unsuccessfully tried to stop K12 from contracting with her community to create New England’s first virtual public school last year. “It’s absolutely astounding how people can accept this so easily.” People on both sides agree that the structure providing public education is not designed to handle virtual schools. How, for example, do you pay for a school in cyberspace when education funding formulas are rooted in the geography of property taxes? How do you oversee the quality of a virtual education?


We’ve got a 19th-century edifice trying to house a 21st-century system,” said Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, who served on K12’s board of directors until 2007.Despite questions, full-time virtual schools are proliferating.In the past two years, more than a dozen states have passed laws and removed obstacles to encourage virtual schools. And providers of virtual education have been making their case in statehouses around the country.K12 has hired lobbyists from Boise to Boston and backed political candidates who support school choice in general and virtual education in particular. From 2004 to 2010, K12 gave about $500,000 in direct contributions to state politicians across the country, with three-quarters going to Republicans, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

We understand the politics of education pretty well,” Packard told investors recently.


K12’s push into New England illustrates its skill. In 2009, the company began exploring the potential for opening a virtual school in Massachusetts in partnership with the rural Greenfield school district.But Massachusetts education officials halted the plan, saying Greenfield had no legal authority to create a statewide school. So Greenfield and K12 turned to legislators, with the company spending about $200,000 on lobbyists.State Rep. Martha Walz, a Boston Democrat, wrote legislation that allowed Greenfield to open the Massachusetts Virtual Academy in 2010. She acknowledged that the language was imperfect and didn’t address issues of funding or oversight but said she couldn’t wait to craft a comprehensive plan.You do what you need to do sometimes to get the ball rolling,” said Walz, who accepted at least $2,600 in campaign contributions from K12, its executives or its lobbyists since 2008, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.That scenario is repeating nationwide as K12 and its allies seek to expand virtual education.


GROWING FAST

About 250,000 students are enrolled in full-time public virtual schools in 30 states, according to Susan Patrick of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a trade association. Although that’s just a fraction of the country’s 50 million schoolchildren, the numbers are growing fast, Patrick said.

K12 teaches about two out of every five students in full-time online schools. Its next largest competitor is Baltimore-based Connections Education. The rest of the industry consists of smaller operators and some nonprofit virtual schools.

If it were a school district, K12 would rank among the 30 largest of the nation’s 1,500 districts. The company, which began in two states a decade ago, now teaches about 95,000 students in virtual schools in 29 states and Washington, D.C.


And it plans to grow. “We are now that much closer to our manifest destiny of making a K12 Inc. education available to every child,” Packard said.In the past fiscal year, K12 had revenue of $522 million — a 36 percent increase from the prior year, according to securities filings. Its net income after a series of acquisitions was $12.8 million. Packard, 48, earned $2.6 million in total compensation.


HOW IT WORKS

K12 sells a variety of ways to learn online, ranging from hybrid schools — in which students meet in a classroom but take courses via computer — to a la carte courses purchased by traditional schools.But K12’s core business — and the one proving most controversial — is full-time virtual public schools. Virtual class sizes tend to be larger than at traditional schools — the Virginia Virtual Academy, public institution run by K12, averages 60 students per teacher. So in the primary grades, the model relies on the intensive work of a parent “learning coach,” who provides most lessons away from the computer, using books and 90 pounds of other educational materials shipped to families by K12.


In the higher grades, the bulk of learning is online, with software that sometimes aims to mimic real-life experiences for students, such as a high school biology lab featuring an animated frog dissection. Teachers monitor student progress, grade work and answer questions by email or phone. They work from home, aren’t likely to be unionized and earn as much as 35 percent less than their counterparts in regular schools, according to interviews with former K12 teachers.


COSTS VS. BENEFITS

While virtual schools continue to expand, their effectiveness is unclear.We have no real evidence one way or another,” said Tom Loveless, a Brookings Institution scholar who served as a paid consultant to K12 in its early years. A 2009 analysis by the U.S. Education Department found that there wasn’t enough research to draw conclusions about how elementary and secondary students fare in full-time virtual schools compared with classrooms. On measures widely used to judge all public schools, such as state test scores and graduation rates, virtual schools — often run as charter schools — tend to perform worse than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. Last year, about one-third of K12-managed schools met the achievement goals required under the federal No Child Left Behind law, according to Gary Miron, a Western Michigan University professor who called that performance “poor.”


K12 officials say the weak test results are related to the program often attracting students who struggled in regular schools. One of K12’s oldest and biggest schools is the Agora Cyber Charter, a statewide virtual school that began in Pennsylvania in 2005. The company manages the school under a contract with its nonprofit board of trustees. Enrollment this fall topped 8,000 students. Agora has never met federally defined goals. Company officials said internal data show that Agora students — and K12 students in general — are learning at a faster rate than the national norm, even if they can’t pass a grade-level test. And the longer students stay with K12, the better they perform, the company said. But even some supporters of virtual schools question whether online operators are charging taxpayers fairly.


They have no business trying to charge as much as the brick-and-mortar schools, at least over time,” said Finn, of the Fordham Institute, which has commissioned a study of the cost of online schools. “Once you’ve got the stuff that you’re going to use for fourth-grade math, for instance, you don’t really need to do much with it. And it should be cheaper.”