By: Chas Sisk, The Tennessean
Students at the Tennessee Virtual Academy, an online school run for profit, learned less than their peers anywhere else in Tennessee last year, data released by the state last week show, but efforts to crack down on the school have been delayed by heavy lobbying on its behalf.
Results from standardized tests show that students in the Tennessee Virtual Academy made less progress as a group in reading, math, science and social studies than students enrolled in all 1,300 other elementary and middle schools who took the same tests. The school fell far short of state expectations for the second year in a row.
But the school will remain open this year after an effort by Gov. Bill Haslam's administration to rein in the school if it failed for a second year was turned back by the school's owner, Virginia-based K12 Inc. The company, which relies on online learning to educate its students, waged a public relations campaign that involved the school's teachers, some of its parents and lobbyists.
Nearly a year after Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman declared the Tennessee Virtual Academy's results "unacceptable" and demanded an immediate turnaround, the school stands to collect about $5 million in state funds this school year. Last year, the school took in an estimated $15 million.
Critics say the results fit a pattern for K12's schools nationwide. The company has opened online schools across the country, taking advantage of state school-choice and charter school laws.
But the effectiveness of virtual schools, run by K12 or others, has been questioned repeatedly. Studies by Western Michigan University and the National Education Policy Center have found that only about 1 in 4 for-profit virtual schools meet federal standards. District-run virtual schools do slightly better.
Like most K12 schools, the Tennessee Virtual Academy operates as a public school under the auspices of a traditional district, in this case Union County Public Schools. The district keeps a cut of 4 percent from the $5,285 per pupil that the state will spend this year on students enrolled in the virtual school, with the rest going to the company.
Because the program is publicly funded, parents can enroll their children in the Tennessee Virtual Academy at little to no cost. Students typically work from their homes, using kits provided by the school. Instruction comes from licensed teachers over the Internet.
The school appeals to many parents who home-school their children. K12 also recruits, both through information sessions aimed at parents in struggling districts and through extensive television advertising.
That high profile has made K12 schools a focal point in the debate over virtual education.
"We are one of the most scrutinized schools in the state," Josh Williams, the Tennessee Virtual Academy's head, said Friday.
But some say the state is not scrutinizing the school enough. State Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, said last week that the Haslam administration and Republican lawmakers have passed up opportunities to close the Tennessee Virtual Academy, including during this spring's legislative session.
"They have a track record of failure," Stewart said. "A second year of those scores confirms what a bad policy this is."
A spokesman for the governor said Haslam was satisfied that proper accountability measures have been put in place.
Nine school districts in Tennessee have opened virtual schools since state legislators passed a law in 2011 permitting them to do so. That group includes the Metro Nashville Virtual School, which has enrolled 842 students. Several are too new for testing results to be available, but in the instances where data exist, the schools have shown average to below-average performance.
The Tennessee Virtual Academy stands out for its size (nearly 3,200 students enrolled last year), for its for-profit status and for the degree to which its results trail those of traditional elementary and middle schools.
Last year, the school scored a -26.74 on its composite growth index, a measurement that factors together all of its students' past test scores, their progress in 2012-13 and the likelihood that those results were statistical flukes. A growth index below -2 is considered a failure.
"They didn't get that score just by chance," said Dale Ballou, a professor at Vanderbilt University who specializes in analyzing school data.
K12 insists its results are improving. In a news release, it identified 18 sets of students who had higher growth indexes last year than the year before.
But the results were only less bad. The 19-page report that accompanied the release showed only two of those groups actually met state standards.
Overall, the school's growth score was slightly lower than the -26.56 it received a year ago.
"We know TNVA has strong support from parents that chose this option for their children, and from the teachers who are serving these students every day," said Jeff Kwitowski, a company spokesman. "We also know that TNVA must improve."
In January, the Haslam administration introduced a bill that would have let it limit enrollment or shut down any virtual school that failed for two consecutive years. Without taking aim at the Tennessee Virtual Academy specifically, the measure was seen as an attempt to rein in the school.
K12 Inc. fought back. In committee rooms and legislative offices, the school's teachers and some of its parents shared stories of students who had benefited from the program. Behind the scenes, the company's longtime lobbyist, the powerful Nashville firm of McMahan Winstead, worked against the bill.
K12 succeeded in getting the bill amended in March. The most notable change was an extension of how long a virtual school could fail before the state would step in - to three years from two years.
State Rep. Harry Brooks, chairman of the House Education Committee, says the policy falls in line with the state's treatment of failing teachers and traditional schools.
"All of our districts have particular schools that are struggling," said the Knoxville Republican. "We've got to pick the philosophy we want to have and be consistent."
The Haslam administration accepted the amendments, but K12 continued to work against the bill. The company hired the Ingram Group, the firm founded by Haslam's adviser, Tom Ingram, and in early April, the firm set up a meeting between four K12 officials and Haslam's chief of staff, Mark Cate.
At that meeting, which Ingram and his partner Marcille Durham also attended, K12 officials asked the administration to kill the bill altogether, said David Smith, a spokesman for the governor. But the administration refused to do so, and the bill finally passed the legislature 13 days later. Haslam signed the bill in May.
"We were comfortable with it," Smith said.
Kwitowski, the K12 spokesman, said the company only wanted to ensure it was treated like other public schools.
The outcome of the debate means the state will not intervene in the Tennessee Virtual Academy unless it fails again this year. (Echoing statements education officials made last spring, Smith said the administration never intended to count the school's 2011-12 results against it.) The school also is free to enroll as many students as it would like this year.
But enrollment appears to be slipping. The Department of Education said Friday that the school's current enrollment is 969 students, less than one-third its enrollment last school year.
Williams, the school's director, said it plans "a little bit of changing" to its administration and approach. He listed those changes as adding a third master teacher, gathering more data on students, hiring specialists to work with struggling students, and improving scheduling and supervision.
K12 Inc. has asked to open a second school - the Tennessee Cyber Academy in neighboring Campbell County. The Department of Education last month turned down the application, citing insufficient information.
Stewart, the Nashville lawmaker skeptical of the school, predicted such battles will persist as long as for-profit companies are allowed to set up schools online.
"They will be back up to the legislature this year with their lobbyists," he said. "There's been a delay, but on no account is that going to prevent them from opening that school."
Reach Chas Sisk at 615-259-8283 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @chassisk.