published Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

Andy Berke, online school operator trading barbs

Senator Andy Berke (D-Chattanooga) speaks at a town hall meeting in Chattanooga, Tenn., in this file photo.
Senator Andy Berke (D-Chattanooga) speaks at a town hall meeting in Chattanooga, Tenn., in this file photo.
Photo by Jenna Walker /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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NASHVILLE -- The political equivalent of a school-yard brawl has broken out between one of the nation's largest for-profit providers of online learning programs, K12 Inc., and a state legislator from Chattanooga who is proving to be one of the company's toughest Tennessee critics.

In an Aug. 28 column published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, labeled the Virtual Public Schools Act as "possibly [the] most destructive" bill to pass the Republican-controlled General Assembly this year.

The new law's passage, Berke charged, was aided by K12's lobbyists and "funnels thousands of Tennessee public education dollars to a convicted felon, high-profile Washington figures and millionaire executives who live around the world."

Calling K12 "partly the brainchild of Michael Milken, a convicted felon who served time in prison for his role in the 1980s as the 'junk-bond king,'" Berke said Tennessee taxpayers "are now on the hook for K12 executives' salaries."

"What K12 hasn't proved is that it can help your child learn," Berke contended.

The General Assembly passed the bill over most Democrats' objections this spring. K12 Inc. later contracted with Union County Public Schools and opened the state's first "virtual school," enrolling at least 1,100 students from school districts statewide.

Union County is receiving $5,300 per student, keeping 4 percent for itself as an administrative fee and providing the rest under contract to K12.

The company is firing back at Berke in a statement posted on the company's website. K12's vice president of public affairs, Jeff Kwitowski, calls Berke's assertions "quite an inflated indictment, but that's about the extent of his argument, at least as it relates to actual policy."

"After that," Kwitowski writes, the Chattanooga lawmaker "packs his piece with factual errors, ad hominem [personal] attacks, and wild accusations. It's an old debate trick used when one is unwilling or unable to argue the merits for or against an issue."

He said Berke is arguing online public schools are "bad because K12 is bad. And K12 is bad because one of their investors is bad. Because of this one individual, the entire company -- its teachers, student counselors and advisors, curriculum developers, receptionists -- are all guilty by association."

"Of course," Kwitowski writes, "it's nonsense," saying Milken "was never an employee with K12, never served on K12's board, or held any management or leadership position."

He disputes Berke's assertion that a U.S. Department of Education study "concluded there was no evidence that K12's method of cyber-schooling provided any benefit over traditional schooling."

One study, Kwitowski cites, is the education department's "meta-analysis" of previous studies of online learning and traditional face-to-face teaching. Kwitowski quotes part of it that says "students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction."

Berke said in a subsequent email that Kwitowski's post is "flawed from the headline on down." The "great majority of estimated effect sizes in the meta-analysis are for undergraduate and older students, not elementary or secondary learners," Berke said. "Although this meta-analysis did not find a significant effect by learner type, when learners' age groups are considered separately, the mean effect size is significantly positive for undergraduate and other older learners but not for K-12 students."

A review of the U.S. Education Department's study itself says that it used both K-12 studies and those involving older or higher education students because there are so few studies regarding online learning's impact on K-12.

Federal researchers concluded in the study that "when used by itself, online learning appears to be as effective as conventional classroom instruction, but not more so."

Kwitowski took issue with Berke's attack on the for-profit nature of the venture with Union County. In an interview, Kwitowski noted schools use any number of for-profit contractors ranging from textbook publishers to school bus operators.

He also cited what he said was Hamilton County schools' use of private vendors to create online courses for the e4TN pilot project it operated for the state. The project was funded by a federal grant, and the county made available a number of individual courses across the state.

In his critique, Berke said, "we are entering uncharted waters in Tennessee public education. We have no precedent for transferring public education dollars to a private company with no restrictions, no expectations and no consequences."

Berke said in response to Kwitowski's charges that "I enthusiastically support education initiatives and innovations designed to help our students learn and improve outcomes -- including online schooling" like the e4TN program, which he called "a state-managed online learning program that has been all but shut down.

"Instead," Berke charged, "we're giving our public education dollars to a private corporation -- a corporation that, like any publicly traded corporation, looks to keep its shareholders happy by maximizing profits and minimizing costs. The problem comes when K12 keeps its shareholders happy with our taxpayers' funds, at the cost of our children's education."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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hcirehttae said...

Berke is right on here. I hope people will listen to him. Kids belong in school. Online learning is for adults and extreme necessities. It does have its place, but not as a substitute for a good, caring teacher in a classroom for young students.

And anything related to Michael Milken is beyond suspect and straight into scurrilous, by definition. How that man got out of jail is a wonder, but I'm sure he'll be back there soon.

September 6, 2011 at 7:35 a.m.
yaffay said...

Andy Berke is a wonderful representative for the people of this area. I wish there were more elected officials in Tennesse that had his intellectual ability and understanding of the issues.

September 6, 2011 at 9:10 a.m.
gactn said...

Andy Berke and Rick Smith have both exhibited a knee jerk reaction to the K12 initiative undertaken by Union County. While one TN county is trying to foster a new approach to education, our great senator and superintendent are both intent on keeping our kids mired in a school system that produces failure. How else do they explain a brand new school in East Brainerd that is already over crowded with kids packed in classrooms, hallways, and the cafeteria like sardines? And our kids are supposed to learn in this environment? But when we tried to take our child out of this failing environment and enroll them in K12 (after much research on our part), we were told Rick Smith (he probably had to check with Rhonda Thurman first) would not allow Hamilton County students to attend the Union County program. Basically declaring he could care less about the kids that were not able to succeed in a crowded brick and mortar schoolhouse. I too wish the K12 program were a not-for-profit program. And that the dollars stayed in TN. However my primary concern is that my child succeeds in their education. And since Hamilton County cannot provide the opportunity for my child to succeed, how dare they throw my child on the trash heap! Online education is not for every student. We also have a second child in the county school system that is succeeding and do not plan to remove him. If Andy Berke and Rick Smith cannot help 100% of the student population, then they need to get out of the way of the parents that have kids that could benefit from a home school environment. After all it is the parents that must ensure their kid’s education, which we all know is a prerequisite for success in life. So Andy Berke gets to keep the money I pay in taxes to support public education, while I now get to pay for private school tuition. I was only too willing to give a virtual public school education program a shot. I work in a virtual office at home with continuous contact (email, chat, teleconference, videoconference) with people around the USA and around the world. And some hillbilly senator and superintendent tries to tell me it won’t work in the education world? I am flabbergasted that Hamilton County can have Memorial Hospital, Volkswagen, Riverbend Festival, etc., all world renown and still have leaders like Andy Berke and the Hamilton County Department of Education. Come on!

September 6, 2011 at 10:46 a.m.
K12choice said...

You can read the full response to Sen. Berke's claims here: http://bit.ly/oCInmr

Parents know that this issue is really not about Sen. Berke or K12, it's about providing children more public school options and giving parents the freedom to choose those options for their kids.

September 6, 2011 at 12:15 p.m.
harrystatel said...

Andy Berke, the favorite son of Ward Crutchfield, is tied in with teacher's unions, SEIU, and has never entertained a new thought without approval by his handlers.

Let parents decide for their kids; not another government bureaucrat like Berke.

More choices for parents, less power for Berke.

After all, it's Berke and his ilk that created the mess in education who insist that if students will just wallow in the hog-slops a little longer, with more money and more government power, the mud will be start to look and taste good.

But Andy doesn't want parents to have a choice. "Andy Knows Best!" and will use the government guns to prove it.

September 6, 2011 at 1:01 p.m.
Thumper321 said...

Mr. Berke, with all due respect, and as a fellow Democrat, I have to disagree with your assessment. Tennessee's education system has failed to meet the needs of our children, especially students with disabilities. I have three children in the public school system, and I am appalled at how they are being taught to pass the TCAP, but not being taught to learn. My oldest child knows how to use a calculator, how to do math kickstarters for 5 minutes each morning, and how to memorize a list of adjectives to use on the writing assessment. However, no teacher has bothered to teach him his multiplication tables or how to write in cursive. Thank goodness he has parents for that. In one year, he went from 98%ile on TCAP to 48%ile. The school justifies this by saying that he's still above the school system (Tipton Co.) average of 33%. Seriously? If our schools are in the 33%ile, then we are doing something wrong. Though I cannot take advantage of the opportunity to use the virtual K12 yet, I am glad that our children finally have another option. With one intellectually gifted child, one 'other health impaired' child, and one typical child, I can assure you that we are indeed leaving children behind. If you want to take away virtual K12, fix the system first. Kids deserve an actual education, not just the opportunity to pass tests and increase school funding. Find an appropriate way to judge school progress because AYP and attendance are not it.

September 6, 2011 at 2:35 p.m.
heneh said...

Another choice for parents so what is the problem with that? If you look at where most of the elected officials send their children most of the time it is not to public schools but they do not want to give anyone else that choice.

September 6, 2011 at 7:44 p.m.
01centare said...

What I'd like to know is how will they determine if the student is actually doing his or her own work, and not a parent, sibling or friend doing the work for them?

Even with online college courses it's basically a toss up as to who is actually doing the assignments.

September 6, 2011 at 8:15 p.m.
ronniew said...

Online schools have come a long way in recent years in address individual learner needs. If the instructor is using multiple approaches and provides good feedback, the method is effective.

Ronnie: http://www.askforeducation.com/online-schools

March 8, 2013 at 1:50 a.m.
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