NASHVILLE -- Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman is calling last year's student performance at Union County public schools' new, privately run Tennessee Virtual Academy "unacceptable."
"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.
BEP funding schedules approved in July by the State Board of Education for this year show Union County's allotment is increasing by $8.23 million, a 65 percent increase, due to overall enrollment boosts.
Huffman spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier said the increase is attributable to the Tennessee Virtual Academy's enrollment.
What the state is getting for its money made newspaper headlines last week after state Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, a K12 critic, released to the Times Free Press a letter Huffman sent him in response to Berke's queries about student performance.
Berke also called for the Senate and House Education Committees to conduct a "thorough review" of K12 operations and the 2011 law that allows them to operate in Tennessee.
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.
But it was unclear Friday whether the $8.23 million includes some state BEP funds that might not be eligible for the split with K12 Inc..
The state's figures show the Tennessee Virtual Academy fell into the bottom 11 percent of schools for student gains as measured under the state's Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System. The cyber school scored a 1 on the 5-point scale.
Williams said he met with state education department officials over the summer and "they believed [there] would be great ideas moving forward to increase test scores."
Huffman said when the academy cranked up last year, "I don't think we knew what to expect, but for any school, whether it's K12 or any other, getting 1 on value added (measurements) is unacceptable."
Still, it doesn't appear Huffman's department has authority to act unless things get far worse at the academy. Structurally speaking, the academy "functions as a Union County school," the commissioner noted.
"At the state level, our intersection with it is the same as other districts' schools," he added. "It's not on the [state's] priority list, so it's not subject to being pulled into the Achievement School District."
Only public schools that fall into the bottom five percent of schools with the largest achievement gaps fall into the purview of the state's Achievement School District, Huffman said.
In his letter to Senate Education Committee Chairman Delores Gresham, R-Somerville, Berke said that "while far too many schools of all types underperform, K12 Inc. removes money from the system without accountability."
"Our accountability is to students, parents and voters in Tennessee, not the shareholders of K12 Inc.," Berke added.
Gresham last week did not respond to a Times Free Press request for an interview. Nor did Union County schools' interim chief, Jimmy Carter, or Union County Mayor Mike Williams.
Berke complained that "millions of dollars are flowing to K12 and all we're getting for them from them are results at the bottom of the bottom."
He said the state needs to look at injecting more accountability into the law authorizing for-profit companies to run cyber schools under contracts.
It is unclear how much profit K12, which operates in 30 states, is making from its Tennessee operation. While K12 Inc. doesn't operate "brick and mortar" schools, the company does have fixed expenses for teachers, software and other support, such as providing textbooks to teachers. The company also advertised on television across the state both last year and this year.
Some public school systems, including Hamilton County's, are in the process of setting up their own online schools.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.