A struggling online cyber school that serves students throughout Tennessee faces closure at the end of the upcoming school year unless it shows significant gains — the latest blow in an intense back and forth between Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman and Union County school officials.
Nevertheless, parents with kids enrolled at the Tennessee Virtual Academy are celebrating because its next incoming class of 626 of students will be admitted and the school will remain open for 2014-15.
They, as well as Union County officials, have expressed optimism that the school's some 1,800 overall students can show marked improvement during the next year, which would force Huffman to rescind his order that Union County officials shut down the school. Huffman, though, in an interview with The Tennessean, framed that as statistically unlikely.
"This school is closed at the end of the coming school year," Huffman said, stressing a point he believes has been missed. "The decision has been made. Parents should find different options for their children for the next school year.
"If ... this school manages to defy the odds of its past performance and get adequate results, we would of course rescind that decision. But there is nothing in their data from the first three years that would indicate to me they are going to be able to achieve that level of performance."
Computer-based learning at home through the Tennessee Virtual Academy, made possible by a 2011 change in law, has emerged as a new option in Tennessee instead of the traditional brick-and-mortar school. From the outset, however, the school has struggled to perform academically.
Three straight years of low student growth of Tennessee Virtual Academy, operated by for-profit K12 Inc., had prompted Huffman earlier this month to seek what he framed as an "alternative" to closure — asking the Union County school system, which contracts the online virtual academy, to "un-enroll" its next incoming class of 600-plus students.
Huffman believed an agreement was in place last week, but in a sharply worded letter to Union County officials Wednesday, he accused the district of "inexplicably" not notifying the more than 600 Tennessee Virtual Academy families of students that they would need to find an alternative school.
With the academy beginning school on Monday, Huffman acknowledged that preventing students from entering at this point would place a burden on parents and students. He said he therefore granted the group of students to enter this year, even though the life of the school could be short-lived.
The Union County board voted to enroll the students at an emergency meeting Wednesday.
"Unfortunately, by not following through on their agreement and by dragging out the timeline, they created a pretty untenable situation for parents," Huffman said Thursday. "The reality is, school starts next week."
Huffman, who accused K12 and Union County officials of "operating in bad faith" while suggesting parents had been used as "pawns," has turned to a law that calls for action if a virtual school fails to demonstrate adequate student achievement for three years.
The Tennessee General Assembly next session is already set to revisit the Virtual Public Schools Act, which allows online virtual schools in Tennesee and is scheduled to sunset next year.
Jimmy Carter, superintendent of Union County Schools, said he would follow Huffman's directive to close the school if it got to that point. But he said the district has a "plan in place" to improve outcomes for the virtual academy's students and believes it will show gains this year — "the growth is there," he claims.
He also pointed out that Huffman himself has noted that while first-year students at Tennessee Virtual Academy have struggled, students in their second and third years have met benchmarks.
"I'm happy with the way everything turned out," Carter said said. "I'm happy we're going to be able to serve those kids."
Carter, along with Tennessee Virtual Academy parents and two lawmakers who support the school, Republicans Sen. Frank Niceley and Rep. Dennis Roach, met with members of Gov. Bill Haslam's administration in Nashville Tuesday to pitch a "compromise" instead of un-enrolling students.
Parents, who had floated the possibility of litigation if the 2014-15 class of students were blocked, share Carter's confidence that the school will produce better results.
"All along, I've said it's about the children," said Angie Stadinger, a Tennessee Virtual Academy parent from Adamsville who attended the meeting at the governor's office. "As a parent and an educator, we have the right to choose what's good for our children. We are ready as a school to show the growth that the governor and the commissioner want to see."