State Blocks Opening of New K12 Virtual School

The state Department of Education has turned down — at least for now — an application from Campbell County’s school system to begin immediately operating a virtual school program in partnership with for-profit K12 Inc.

Eunice Reynolds, manager of special projects for the school system, said Friday that she fears that the rejection reflects a Department of Education attitude that “K12 is a bad word” and an attempt to stop creation of a new virtual school in Tennessee to join the Tennessee Virtual Academy, set up by K12 through the Union County school system in 2011.

The Campbell County school board voted June 21 to contract with K12 to establish the Tennessee Cyber Academy. In a letter dated July 30, the state’s deputy education commissioner, Kathleen Airhart, sent Campbell County Schools Assistant Director Larry Nidiffer a letter saying the application for state approval was inadequate in providing required information.

“We appreciate your desire to provide additional educational opportunities to students; however, we remain concerned about your ability to successfully open and operate this school for the 2013-14 school year,” Airhart wrote.

(Note: Copy of the letter HERE; copy of the application HERE.)

Reynolds said the delay in a formal response suggests an intent to stop the school from opening, as planned, on Friday — and that it succeeded.

“Probably they thought that, if they delayed this (approval) we’d just give up and throw up our hands (and abandon the plan). That didn’t work, and we didn’t do it,” she said, adding that if the department was reasonable, “they would have responded in a helpful manner instead of us having to ask, ‘What else do you want?’ ”

In the letter, Airhart asked eight questions seeking either documentation or basic information — for example, the number of teachers, the estimated number of students and the length of a school day — plus broader questions on how the new school will be managed and how the local board will retain oversight of operations.

Nidiffer, who described his role as that of “researcher,” said Campbell County school officials would be working this weekend to compile answers to the questions posed. Reynolds said K12 officials volunteered to help the effort.

The lack of a prompt approval has already forced a delay in opening the virtual school in conjunction with regular Campbell schools, which had students register on Friday with classes beginning Monday.

K12 already operates a virtual school through the Union County school system. The Union County operation covers kindergarten through the eighth grade. The Campbell County proposal would cover kindergarten through 10th grade in its first year, with plans calling for an expansion to the 11th grade in the 2014-2015 school year and to the 12th grade in the 2015-2016 school year.

Nidiffer said about 250 students who completed the eighth grade through the Union County virtual school last year had signed up to take classes through the Campbell County system this year, along with “several hundred” other students. He voiced uncertainty about how the delay in opening would affect enrollment but noted that — if the school later gets approval — students can still transfer to the Campbell County Tennessee Cyber Academy from other schools.

Reynolds said the K12 offer was “too good to pass up” for a school system struggling to improve conditions for its students, citing examples ranging from a hard-of-hearing youngster whose mother had “tears in her eyes” at the new opportunity to a chance for the county to receive much-needed new revenue. The Campbell County contract will — as with the Union County contract — provide 4 percent of revenue to the local system, she said.

The virtual schools can accept students from across the state and have become popular with home-school students. The state pays the virtual school the same amount per student as it would for a county resident student. For Union County, that translated into about $5 million in the 2011-2012 school year, according to the Union County trustee.

The state Legislature legalized for-profit virtual schools in Tennessee through a law enacted in 2011, supported by lobbyists for K12. Union County has been the only school system to set up such an operation.