By Lisa Fingeroot | The Tennessean
As state officials lambaste the Tennessee Virtual Academy for low achievement scores and discuss new oversight methods, the school's management company is facing an investigation in Florida, overcoming a list of citations issued in Georgia and recovering from reports of poor results in many of its schools.
The virtual academy allows students in grades K-8 to take all their classes online, monitored by a certified teacher. It is managed by K12 Inc., a publicly traded for-profit company that has contracts for differing levels of involvement with at least 2,000 other schools across the nation.
In its first year, the Tennessee academy ranked among the bottom 4 percent of districts in the state on a measure that shows student progress from year to year.
State Rep. Joe Pitts, D-Clarksville, called the school "a risky experiment that blew up in our face."
K12 officials say the school can't be judged fairly for effectiveness in its first year of operation and the score should only be considered a first-year baseline for future comparisons.
However, Tennessee is not the only state where the management company has been criticized.
A research paper published in July by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder recommended national education officials slow down the approval of virtual schools while examining effectiveness and cost. The study showed achievement scores of K12 students were not on par with those of traditional schools.
A class-action lawsuit against K12 is pending in a U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Virginia claiming the company made inflated claims about its student achievement in an effort to inflate stock prices.
And The New York Times spent months researching the company before publishing an article in December critical of its test scores.
Josh Williams, head of school for the Tennessee Virtual Academy, said the virtual school's results were not carefully analyzed before making conclusions.
Only about 25 percent of the students were measured, Williams said, and these first results are incomplete. A national measure used by K12, the Scantron Performance Series, indicates K12 Tennessee students are above the national average, he added.
The scores being used against the virtual academy are part of the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, an analysis of student academic growth over time.
"When K12 first lobbied the legislature, I worried that it was going to open us up to a provider with bad scores," state Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said last week.
"In the last several years, we've tried to raise standards as a state, and to push the idea of excellence for every child. K12 simply doesn't deliver that."
Pitts plans to introduce legislation in January to allow a virtual school with poor scores to be evaluated each year instead of every two years.
"If we are going to hold teachers and students and parents accountable, we've got to hold virtual and charter schools just as accountable," Pitts said.
Troubles in Fla., Ga.
Adding to the company's woes is an investigation by the Florida attorney general into claims the company does not use Florida-certified teachers -- a claim the company denies.
The company uses only Tennessee-certified teachers in Tennessee, Williams said.
The Georgia Department of Education has threatened to shut down a K12 Inc. virtual school if changes to teacher-student ratio and caseload for special education teachers are not made by October. The changes have been made and the school is waiting for an examination of the changes, said Jeff Kwitowski, senior vice president of public affairs for K12 Inc.
Kwitowski believes K12 is taking the publicity hit for many changes sweeping the nation under the banner of "education reform." The changes give parents control of their children's education, which threatens the traditional educational power structure, he said.
A first for TN
More than 2,000 students signed up last year when the Tennessee Virtual Academy was officially launched by Union County Public Schools, a small district in East Tennessee.
A 2011 state law allows any school district to do what Union County has done: contract with a for-profit management company to operate a virtual school that will accept students from all over the state.
Union County Schools Director Wayne Goforth thinks Pitts and Berke are upset over how quickly Union County jumped on an opportunity to form a partnership with the for-profit K12.
"They opened the door and we hopped on it," Goforth said. "We are a poor county and we needed revenue."
The school system collects 4 percent of the roughly $10 million in state education funds that flow through its district on the way to K12. The partnership has made the Union County the only revenue-producing school system in the state, Goforth said.
While some other districts offer online classes and even full-time school programs online, Goforth said Union County is the only one to partner with a for-profit company.
"The Union County school system has created this monster, and I am really upset that the door is open," Pitts said.
The Metro Nashville school district has a full-time online high school program and is making plans for a middle school program as well, but it is purchasing curriculum and managing the program internally.
Flexibility is draw
Holly Wooten is one of the parents drawn to the flexibility allowed by a virtual school. It's a selling point K12 uses when promoting its virtual school during information sessions like one last week at the Nashville library. The session drew just four parents.
Wooten and her four kids can be found doing schoolwork on the front porch of their home just outside Nashville on particularly beautiful days.
The Wooten kids are in second, fourth, sixth and 10th grades, and all score very well on standardized tests, their mother said. Because the Tennessee academy goes only through eighth grade, her high school son uses a different online system.
When Wooten home-schooled her children, she independently purchased the K12 Inc. curriculum for each of them.
"I feel like the curriculum is superior, the highest caliber I've seen," she said. "It applies to all learning styles."
K12 also provides opportunities for its students to take field trips or attend other events with their virtual classmates. For example, parents and students attended a school year kickoff event at the Nashville Zoo.
K12 teacher likes it
While teachers in other states have reported a heavier workload than promised by K12, Tennessee teachers have not made that complaint.
K12 Tennessee teacher Rebecca Williams chose virtual school so she could stay home with her infant son when her husband was deployed with his Army unit.
Her workload is about the same as it would be for a teacher in the traditional bricks-and-mortar situation, Williams said.
Because of virtual school, Williams thinks she and her colleagues "are able to truly focus on meeting the needs of our students," she said.