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.
The House approved 66-29 on Tuesday a bill that revises rules for operating for-profit virtual schools and sent it to the governor, whose administration drafted the measure as part of the Haslam administration legislative package this year.
The bill (SB157) was approved after about half hour of debate, mostly devoted to the Republican majority killing amendments proposed by Democrats. One of them, offered by Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville, would have repealed the 2010 law that authorized operation of for-profit virtual schools in Tennessee, leading to establishment of Tennessee Virtual Academy in Union County by K12, Inc.
Another Stewart amendment would have prohibited operation within the state of a for-profit virtual school that is partly owned by a convicted felon. Stewart said that was aimed at Michael Milken, who owns an interest in K12 according to some media accounts.
The Democrat-sponsored revision attempts were all defeated on party-line votes.
The bill itself, sponsored for Haslam by Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, imposes a 1,500-student cap on enrollment on new virtual schools launched in the state. But the limit would not apply to Tennessee Virtual Academy, the only for-profit virtual school already in operation.
The bill also declares that a virtual school that has below standard student performance for three consecutive years, can be closed by the state commissioner of education. The commissioner would also have the option of imposing an enrollment cap on such a school. The existing academy had poor performance results in its first year of operation.
Brooks said the bill gives the commissioner options in pushing to improve schools and gives students and their parents options as well.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to tighten enrollment requirements at privately run online schools has passed the Senate.
The measure guided by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville was approved 27-2 on Thursday.
The proposal would allow beginning online schools to start with an enrollment of 1,500 and continue to expand as long as they meet performance requirements. If they fell to do so for three consecutive years, then the state education commissioner can cap enrollment, or direct the local school board to close it.
Haslam’s initial proposal sought to cap online school enrollment at 5,000.
Critics have pushed for capping enrollment following the low performance of Tennessee Virtual Academy, the state’s only privately operated virtual school.
Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman called its first-year test results “unacceptable.”
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.
In an email reported by WTVF-TV in Nashville, an official of Tennessee’s biggest for-profit virtual school suggests that teachers erase bad grades records for some students. At the center of the controversy is the Tennessee Virtual Academy — a for-profit, online public school that Republican lawmakers touted as a way to improve education in Tennessee. Two years ago, state lawmakers voted to let K12 Inc. open the school, using millions of taxpayer dollars.
But, now, those lawmakers are concerned about standardized test results that put it among the worst schools in the state.
In fact, the email suggests that even school leaders are becoming increasingly concerned by how their students’ grades may look to parents and the public.
“That is not something I would ever be told in my school — I mean, it’s just not acceptable,” said state Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat who is also a career teacher. “Quite honestly, I was horrified.”
The email — labeled “important — was written in December by the Tennessee Virtual Academy’s vice principal to middle school teachers.
“After … looking at so many failing grades, we need to make some changes before the holidays,” the email begins.
Among the changes: Each teacher “needs to take out the October and September progress [reports]; delete it so that all that is showing is November progress.”
…”And that’s cheating in your mind?” NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.
“In my mind, sure. I mean, yes.”
The email adds, “This cannot be late!”
“To come in and say ‘everybody who made failing grades the first two months, we need to delete those grades,’ to me that’s a huge issue,” Johnson added.
And the suggestions from K12 leaders don’t end there.
In traditional classrooms, if students score a 60 on one test and a 90 on a second test, they’re stuck with a 75 average. But the email suggests that teachers erase the bad grades, leaving students with just the good grades.
The email continues, “If you have given an assignment and most of your students failed that assignment, then you need to take that grade out.”
K12 officials refused to sit down to answer our questions, but the Tennessee Virtual Academy’s principal said in an email that the goal was to “more accurately recognize students’ current progress.”
“By going back into our school’s electronic grading system and recording students’ most recent progress score (instead of taking the average throughout the semester) we could more accurately recognize students’ current progress in their individualized learning program,” principal Josh Williams said in the statement.
“This also helped differentiate those and identify those who needed instructional intervention and remediation.”
— Note: The email text is HERE.
Gov. Bill Haslam is moving to rein in enrollment at Union County’s rapidly growing online virtual public school after students at the privately operated academy performed poorly on state achievement scores last year, according to the Chattanooga TFP. Haslam’s bill (SB157) caps student enrollment at the Tennessee Virtual Academy at 5,000. The school accepts students from across the state and now has 3,200 K-8 students after an initial enrollment of 1,800 in the 2011-12 academic year.
The academy is run by the for-profit company K12 Inc. under contract with Union County public schools. That came after a heavy lobbying blitz by company lobbyists who persuaded the Republican-controlled General Assembly to let for-profit companies operate online schools under contract with public school systems.
K12 Inc., which has come under fire on its operations in some states, now faces blow back in Tennessee after results of the academy’s first-year results in the 2011-12 academic year were released last summer.
The school narrowly averted falling into the lowest 10 percent of schools on student performance. Only 16.4 percent of students score as proficient or advance on state tests. Students did better in reading with 39.3 percent of them rated proficient or better.
…Haslam’s legislation would apply to the Tennessee Virtual Academy and any other online schools that come down the path. House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, who is carrying the administration’s package of bills, said Tuesday he had not been fully briefed on the measure.
Huffman spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier said in an email, “This bill is meant to enhance the accountability for virtual schools, and to base their future growth on demonstrated performance.
“This is not about K12; this is a matter of learning from the first year of implementation of the Virtual Schools Act and making improvements with a focus on student achievement,” she said.
The bill restricts new operators of online schools to no more than 1,500 students. After students demonstrate they are indeed learning through state achievement tests, they can enroll no more than 5,000. That cap also applies to K12 Inc.’s operation, Gauthier confirmed.
Another provision in the bill restricts a county online school’s ability to accept students from outside the local district.
News release from House Democratic Caucus:
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Virtual Academy, the state subsidiary of K12, Inc., came under heavy scrutiny in a House Education Committee hearing earlier today over the poor academic results that have been seen in Tennessee and nationwide.
During the hearing Josh Williams, Head of Schools for the Tennessee Virtual Academy, and Megan Henry, Deputy VP of School Development for K12, Inc., struggled to explain why students in their program performed at much lower levels than the statewide average, and how they were going to improve results going forward.
Calling the math scores “pitiful,” Rep. Joe Pitts (D-Clarksville) asked for an example of which of the 30 states K12 operates in would be considered their “shining star”. In response, Deputy VP Henry pointed to states such as Colorado and Georgia which she claimed had “some good academic results.”
Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman is calling last year’s student performance at Union County public schools’ new, privately run Tennessee Virtual Academy “unacceptable,” reports Andy Sher. “Its performance is demonstrably poor,” Huffman said in an interview last week about the online academy, which under a 2011 law passed by the GOP-controlled General Assembly began operations in the 2011-2012 school year, enrolling 1,783 students from across the state.
The school is operated by K12 Inc., the nation’s largest publicly traded online education company, under contract with the tiny Union County Public Schools system. State taxpayers are footing the bill through Tennessee’s Basic Education Program funding formula. This fall’s enrollment is some 3,000 K-8 students.
K12 officials blame last year’s performance on a variety of factors, including students having to adapt to online learning and the fact that more than half the students started the school late.
Still, the academy’s head, Josh Williams, said improvements the school is taking will raise student performance.
“We do have many plans in place that we are doing this year and have shared this [with] the state,” he said in an email.
Students attending the academy sit at home and learn via their computers, which K12 provides free to low-income children. The school has boosted the number of its teachers from 60 to 121 in response to the higher enrollment.
Union County Trustee Gina Buckner said that as of July 1, her office had responded to K12 Inc.’s 2011-2012 invoices and paid the company $5.04 million out of state funds sent to the Union County school system.
“I think there still may be one more payment,” said Buckner, who noted it’s difficult to say how much that would be because the budget submitted to county officials by the Union County Public Schools system didn’t address the issue.
…Under K12’s contract with Union County, the company gets 96 percent of the state portion of the BEP funding. Union County, which has struggled with local funding for years, gets 4 percent as the fiscal agent
Sen. Andy Berke is calling on lawmakers to conduct a “thorough review” of a for-profit virtual school operating in a Northeast Tennessee school district, citing state student testing results he charges show “dismal” results, reports the Chattanooga TFP. Berke, D-Chattanooga, is a frequent critic of K12 Inc.’s Tennessee Virtual Academy, which in the 2011-12 school year opened its online school under contract with the Union County Public Schools system.
According to best estimates from K12, about 1,800 K-8 students from across the state signed up last school year to sit at their home computers and take courses online with support from K12 teachers. The company operates in states across the country.
In a letter Wednesday to Senate Education Committee Chairman Delores Gresham, Berke says state Education Department testing data for the 2011-12 school year show Tennessee Virtual Academy students “performed in the bottom 11 percent of schools statewide.
“As the [school] is advertising on television — and the state anticipates shifting millions of additional tax dollars to [the school] this school year — it is important that we examine K12 Inc.’s performance,” wrote Berke, whose efforts to require an audit of K12’s Tennessee school went nowhere in the Republican-controlled General Assembly last session.
Berke said in an interview Thursday that “if we’re going to use taxpayer dollars … we should ask for real achievement. K12 doesn’t give it to us.”
Gresham, R-Somerville, was the primary Senate sponsor of the 2011 law authorizing local school systems to contract with for-profit online schools. She did not respond Thursday to a reporter’s request to comment on Berke’s criticisms.
Tennessee Virtual Academy’s head, Josh Williams, said in an email that 2011-12 was the school’s first year of operation, suggesting it was unfair to judge results solely on that basis.
“All students were in their first year and most transferred from another district in the state,” he said. “The modality for learning and the school itself were new to every student.”
Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, is asking state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman to conduct an independent review of the operations of a for-profit virtual school operating under contract with the Union County school system, reports the Chattanooga Times-Free Press. In a letter to Huffman, sent Wednesday, Berke cites a study released this month by the National Education Policy Center that is critical of K12 Inc.’s national operations based on 2010-11 data.
K12 officials, which opened an online K-8 school with Union County for the 2011-12 school year, take issue with the center’s study. Company spokesman Jeff Kwitowski called it “deeply flawed” and filled with “numerous errors and wrong assumptions.”
Berke, a persistent critic of K12, noted in the letter that Tennessee’s First to the Top Act of 2010, which he co-sponsored, targeted several areas of education reform, including teachers and leaders, data, standards and assessment as well as “school turnaround.”
“The findings in the report indicate that schools operated by K12 Inc. fail in each of these four areas,” Berke said.
…”It will also be subject to the same accountability as other schools” such as priority and focus, Gauthier said. “So when we have school level results” which are likely this fall, “it will [be] part of that puzzle.”
“We think Sen. Berke’s request has merit, and we intend to look closely at the results and report back to him,” she said. “We don’t think AYP is the appropriate indicator, but we do think that we should look at value-added scores and overall achievement scores, and will do so in the coming weeks.”
K12 said the National Education Policy report “provides no evidence backing up this claim” that students managed by K12 are “falling behind” and “more likely to fall behind” in reading and math scores compared to brick-and-mortar schools.