By Sheila Burke, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The legislature’s failure to shut down an academically troubled virtual school run by a for-profit corporation has left some education leaders wondering whether Tennessee lawmakers really want to fix schools or have sold out children to powerful special interests.
A move that would close the Tennessee Virtual Academy, and ban others like it, failed this week in the legislature. The effort came on the heels of withering criticism of the school by former state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman — a longtime proponent of school choice— who called TNVA Tennessee’s worst school. Huffman, in a recent online essay, said his inability to close the school was one of his biggest failures.
The school has been a disaster since it opened in 2011. Students have performed so poorly on standardized tests that even former supporters have publicly condemned it.
Critics of the school say lawmakers are bowing to pressure from K12 Inc., the Herndon, Virginia-based company that operates TNVA. K12 is one of the largest providers of online school curricula in the country.
Records show that K12 has spent between $285,000 and $575,000 on lobbying since 2010. The company donated more than $75,000 in direct campaign contributions since 2011.
Huffman, in his essay, said K12’s lobbyists went into overdrive after the former education commissioner sounded the alarm when the school’s first-year test scores came in. TNVA ranked dead last in terms of academic gains out of more than 1,600 schools across the state. Huffman said he tried to meet with academic specialists, but what he got instead was a meeting with a lobbyist who “refused to acknowledge that the school had struggled.”
An official with K12 disputes Huffman’s characterization. Jeff Kwitowski, a spokesman for K12, said that Huffman did meet with school officials and had plenty of opportunity to meet personally with parents, teachers and students but never did.
The school’s survival reflects a larger problem at the Legislature, according to Will Pinkston, a top aide to former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen and a member of the Nashville school board.
“The majorities in both the House and the Senate have sold out public education because of the pressure of lobbyists and under the lure of massive amounts of campaign contributions,” Pinkston said.
One prominent lawmaker who has supported the school said lobbyists have nothing to do with it. Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, said he believes in all virtual schools — not just TNVA — because they give students, especially those in rural districts, opportunities they wouldn’t normally have, such as taking Advanced Placement classes. Brooks said he sponsored legislation that will force TNVA to close if it doesn’t perform well over time, so it is being held to a standard.
But Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, said that even if the school does close, there is a risk that taxpayers could be on the hook if a similar school opens. Stewart said he could not convince lawmakers to support his efforts this year to ban all virtual schools operated by for-profit companies (HB2360).
At TNVA, kids stay at home and learn on their computers. Technically, they are considered public school students enrolled in a school in rural Union County.
It’s not clear how much money taxpayers have spent on the school. Union County officials didn’t have a figure available; however, Sen. Delores Gresham said last year that it had already cost $43 million.
The school, which any Tennessee child from kindergarten to eighth grade can attend, has been ranked at the bottom of schools across the state in academic gains every year of its existence. About 600 students are enrolled this school year, down from 3,000 in 2012-13.
“We made some changes and feel like maybe some of those changes will help us,” Union County school director James Carter said of TNVA.
Supporters of the school have said it enrolls a high number of poor and disabled children.
But state figures show that many other public schools across the state have even higher numbers of kids who are economically disadvantaged or have special needs.
Kwitowski, the spokesman for K12, said the school is not for everybody. But for some students, he says, TNVA is the only alternative to a traditional public school.