published Friday, February 1st, 2013

A virtual academy bust

Lobbyists for K12 Inc., an online public school with student-voucher operations in several states, vigorously pursued Tennessee's Republican lawmakers for a voucher contract when they took control of the Legislature, and Gov. Bill Haslam weakly went along. Now the results for the first year of K12's virtual school in Tennessee are in, and they are a disaster. State officials can't move quickly enough to require stiffer student achievement standards, or better yet, to terminate the contract.

There's little doubt about why K12 chose to locate its statewide virtual school in Tennessee's Union County. The county is the state's poorest, and thus it receives the highest dollar-amount-per-student in state education funds under the state's variable basic education funding formula. K12 hauls in per-student revenue at a rate of 92 percent of the state's per-pupil contribution to Union County schools.

That's a telling indicator of its priority financial goals and business model. Had it chosen to locate its state office in a more prosperous urban county, it would have earned substantially less on its statewide student body. But that's just the first reason to throw K12 out.

The sad results of its first year enrollment of 1,800 K-8 students across the state in the 2011-12 school year show that just 16.4 percent scored as proficient or advanced in math on state academic tests; and just 39.3 percent rated proficient or better in reading levels. The scores barely kept the students above the lowest 10 percent of schools on student performance.

Small wonder the Tennessee Virtual Academy head, Josh Williams, and K12 Inc. officials came under withering criticism in a hearing Tuesday before the House Education Committee over the students' achievement scores.

But there are other numbers that don't add up.

For example, Williams told the committee that 65 percent of the K12 school's students were impoverished enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and another 8 percent were special education students. About half of the online school's student body, he added, had not previously attended a public school, and many were home schooled.

Those numbers go against the grain. Home schooled students typically comprise just a fraction of a given county's student population. Relatively few are in the poverty category, and most home-schoolers and their parent-teachers generally do well academically. Most impoverished students, on the other hand, attend public schools. So why would parents of so many impoverished children, much less those whose children have special education needs, sign up their children for a one-dimensional online school.

These statistics merit more analysis, as does Gov. Haslam's legislative response to the low-scoring problem with K12 Inc. Haslam's remedy is to cap Tennessee's Virtual Academy, at 5,000, and to restrict online schools operating under the Virtual Academy to just 1,500 students. It would, however, allow K12 Inc., the Academy's first and only contractor so far, to retain its current statewide enrollment, which is now up to 3,200.

The governor said in a visit to this newspaper Thursday that he also wants performance standards in his new bill. That's a start on fixing the online school idea, but it raises crucial questions: Why did he and the Legislature allow a for-profit online school to operate on state funding without performance standards in the first place, and why did it then allow it to set up shop in the state's poorest county to take a revenue stream based on the maximum rate of per-pupil state funding.

This inept initiative should be terminated before any more money is wasted on it. It was wrongly begun to shift public school money and students out of public schools, and into the hands of a private corporation -- all at the expense of a complete school experience. That does nothing to improve public education.

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