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Andy Berke

NASHVILLE - 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.

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.

Among other things, the study noted that, in 2010-11, only 27.7 percent of K12 schools reported meeting Adequate Yearly Progress, federal testing benchmarks until No Child Left Behind.

While meeting Adequate Yearly Progress is a "relatively crude indicator of whether or not schools are meeting state standards," the study says, it notes the "extremely large differences" such as K12's 25 percentage point difference in AYP "warrant further attention."

The study also notes on-time graduation for K12 schools is 49.1 percent, compared with a 79.4 percent rate for public school in states where the company operates.

Another issue cited by Berke was a finding that K12 schools, when weighted by student enrollment, show 61.4 students for each full-time equivalent teacher.

Huffman spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier said K12's Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program scores are part of Union County's totals.

"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.

"To make such conclusions, one would need to know the academic starting point of the students, in this case, test scores from a prior school year when they were enrolled in a brick-and-mortar school," the company said in a statement.