Huffman on deciding whether to close ‘disappointing’ virtual school

In a standoff over a struggling statewide cyberschool, Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman says he weighed pulling the plug on the school altogether.

Instead, at his urging, the next incoming class of new students at Tennessee Virtual Academy won’t be admitted — an action that has nevertheless put an education chief known for favoring school choice under unfamiliar fire from national reform groups.

The move to “un-enroll” 626 incoming students marks the boldest action yet in what has been a turbulent three years for the online virtual school operated by the for-profit K12 Inc., which has produced woeful test scores every year in Tennessee since a change in law paved the way for its 2011 arrival.

Because of the school’s third straight year of poor results in student growth, the commissioner had the authority to direct the closure of the school. Huffman chose a less harsh option, recommending that the Union County School Board, which contracts K12 to operate in Tennessee, stop admitting students for the time being.

The board obliged on Thursday, voting to request a waiver from the state to cancel enrollment of students it had recently accepted. Tennessee Virtual Academy’s some 1,200 existing students, who live across the state and take coursework from home, will remain part of the school.

Why not close it outright? Huffman noted Tennessee Virtual Academy students have shown improvement in years two and three, and that the challenges rest primarily with first-year students.

…The Washington-based Center for Education Reform issued a statement saying it “strongly condemns” the directive of Huffman. “It’s an outrage that these 626 legally enrolled students are now being forcefully turned away, just two weeks before the start of the school year,” said Kara Kerwin, the organization’s president.

In slowing down the growth of the Tennessee Virtual Academy, Huffman has had to take aim at an option he has supported exploring. In addition to low test marks, the school also has had high attrition, meaning kids have often gone back to their local districts with low proficiency marks.

“I believe that it’s important to try things like virtual education,” he said. “That’s why, at some level, it’s been disappointing to me to see the results.”

As for the Union County school system, Huffman called it “irresponsible” and “disappointing” for it to initially accept new students for this fall, alleging the board was alerted of its “Level 1 status” on June 15. Results from the 2013-14 Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program for individual districts are to be publicly released next week.