A House committee killed legislation that would have closed Tennessee Virtual Academy Tuesday after one Knoxville legislator effectively blocked another from talking to the panel about allegations the for-profit school altered the bad grades of some students.
Instead, the House Education Subcommittee approved a bill pushed by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration that puts some new restrictions on virtual schools, but only after eliminating – with the governor’s approval – a proposed 5,000-student enrollment cap that was originally part of HB151.
Democratic Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville sponsored the bill (HB728) that would have effectively repealed a law passed in 2011 that allowed for-profit virtual schools to operate in Tennessee.
The 2011 bill was sponsored by Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, who is now chairman of the House Education Committee and sponsor of the Haslam administration bill changing some rules for running virtual schools.
Stewart told the committee that Tennessee Virtual Academy, part of a system of virtual schools operated around the nation by K12, Inc., has proven itself in a year of operation a “bad idea” for both its students, who have had low scores in testing, and for taxpayers.
“The only people that are benefiting are in K12, a Virginia corporation that is rising statewide to siphon off millions of dollars every year… for enormous profits,” said Stewart, adding that K12 CEO Ronald Packard was paid $3.9 million last year and $5 million the year before.
Rep. Roger Kane, R-Knoxville, told Stewart his talk of Packard’s salary was a “red herring” and otherwise criticized the Nashville lawmaker’s statements – drawing applause from perhaps 25 Virtual Academy teachers, students and parents of students in the audience.
One Virtual Academy teacher, Summer Shelton of Knoxville, told the panel she had taught in Knox County and elsewhere – including Europe – and considered academy as having “the most dynamic curriculum” and the best overall, especially beneficial to children with special problems, such as feeling stressed in regular schools.
Legislative staff found that Tennessee Virtual Academy is receiving $7.5 million in state funding this year.
Stewart told the committee that the company receives $5,300 per student “essential to turn on a website” and has refused to give any information on how much it spends – which he estimated at $1,000 to $2,000 per student. He challenged K12 to provide the information, though there was no response during the session.
After the meeting, Ken Meyer, director of government relations for K12, told reporters that Stewart’s figures are wrong and K12 has lost money in its first year of operation.
Actually, he said the Tennessee operation gets $4,700 per student, gives Union County about $300 in accordance with its contract, and thus receives only about $4,400 per student. Meyer said the company’s costs are about $6,600 per student, adding he was going by memory and would give more precise figures later.
Stewart also cited an email sent to Virtual Academy teachers in December that says they should “take out the October and September progress (reports); delete it so that all that is showing is November progress reports.”
He distributed the email, which was provided by Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, to him and to WTVF-TV in Nashville, which aired a report on the matter Monday evening. Johnson, a Knox County school teacher, said she had been given the email by a Virtual Academy teacher.
Stewart asked that Johnson be allowed to speak to the committee about the email and implications. Brooks objected, saying the email had nothing to do with the Stewart bill under discussion. The committee chairman made a motion to end all discussion and proceed immediately to a vote on the bill. Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, presiding at the subcommittee meeting, promptly declared Brooks’ motion approved by voice vote, then immediately called for a vote on the bill. It was declared defeated on voice vote.
Afterwards, Johnson and Shelton spent several minutes discussing the email, which Shelton said had been misunderstood. She said the school had a new “grade book” for teachers to report student progress. Some teachers were averaging grades while others were using the most recent grade, Shelton said. The email was to clarify that the most recent grade – as a measure of progress – should be used, she said. In many situations, she said the student had taken a test twice, in which case the second grade is used.
After hearing out Shelton, Johnson said she understood much of the lengthy explanation, but overall “it’s not quite jiving 100 percent.” She also questioned why K12 or Virtual Academy executives had not testified or answered questions.
The Haslam administration bill, sponsored by Brooks, was approved on a 6-3 vote.
As amended, it imposes a 1,500-student cap on new virtual schools launched in the state, but not on those already operating. The original bill would have covered Tennessee Virtual Academy – which now has about 3,200 students – with a 5,000 cap. That was dropped by an amendment.
The bill has other provisions that declare a virtual school that has below standard student performance for two consecutive years can be closed by the state’s education commission. The commissioner would also have the option to instead impose an enrollment cap.
Brooks said afterwards he respects Johnson, but insisted that the email was “outside the scope of the bill” that was being discussed.
“When there’s legislation about changing grades, then we’ll look at it,” said Brooks.
UPDATE: Meyer subsequently provided a pdf on Tennessee Virtual Academy’s budget. Its available by clicking on this link: TNVA_budget.pdf