By Colin Woodard
K12 Inc., an online education company that wants to operate a virtual charter school in Maine, is coming under scathing criticism in Colorado, where a similar virtual school is at risk of being closed down.
The Colorado Virtual Academy, a 4,600-student online charter school incorporated in north suburban Denver, received a damning report this week from a review body in the school district where it is based, which recommended that the 10-year-old school's operating charter not be renewed.
The staff in the Adams 12 Five Star school district cited concern with the school's academic performance – it has ranked in the bottom tenth of Colorado schools for three years running – and with the lack of independence of its local board, which is supposed to govern the school and oversee providers.
The staff's report referenced "concerns regarding K12's exertion of undue influence upon governing board members." It noted that the board "relies heavily on (K12 Inc.) for guidance in using data for decision making, raising questions as to the independence of the board from the (company)."
The recommendation against renewing the charter followed a similar one in November by a statewide body, the Charter Institute of Colorado, to which the school sought to transfer its charter. (Colorado, unlike Maine, allows charters to be issued by school districts or a statewide body.)
"Staff is concerned that (K12 Inc.) is actually in charge of the school, rather than the board," officials reported Nov. 27, noting that the school had only a 22 percent graduation rate in 2012, far less than the rest of the district's 79 percent rate.
Last week, Maine's Charter School Commission rejected the application of the proposed Maine Virtual Academy, which was to be operated by K12 Inc., the company in Herndon, Va., that was at the center of a Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram investigation into digital school policy, published Sept. 2.
Commission members expressed concerns about the local board's independence from the company, which would have hired and fired managers and staff members and provided curricular materials and assessment data.
The head of the Maine Virtual Academy's local board, Amy Carlisle, subsequently defended her board's independence from K12 Inc., although she acknowledged that the company had played a role in shepherding the board into existence. She declined to comment Thursday on the developments in Colorado.
Carlisle has said the board intends to reapply for a charter later this year.
"Our governing board looks forward to working with the Charter School Commission to better understand their concerns about our governance structure and provide them with more detailed information regarding how our board can functionally manage a virtual charter school," she said.
Charter schools receive public funding but are run by parents, teachers and community leaders. In virtual charter schools, which operate in 27 states, students get the vast majority of their education online, at home, with taxpayers in their school districts paying the tuition.
In Colorado, the Adams 12 Five Star school board will meet Feb. 6 to make a final ruling on the Colorado Virtual Academy's future. Patti Gilmour, the district's charter school liaison, said the school's contract will expire June 30.
If the board follows the staff recommendation not to renew the charter, the school will have to find another school district that's willing to issue one, or cease operations
"Student performance was our biggest concern, but governance was another primary driver," Gilmour said. "Some of (the Colorado Virtual Academy's) own board members have admitted there is way too much influence by K12."
In response to a request for comment, K12 Inc. spokesman Jeff Kwitowski sent a short written statement saying that the Colorado school's board of directors "addressed the challenges, improvement plans and goals" for the school during a meeting with district officials Wednesday evening. "Families shared many personal stories on how (the school) is working well for their children," he wrote.
Kwitowski referred questions about Maine to the Maine Virtual Academy's board. "K12 Inc. respects the independence and autonomy of all the school districts and nonprofit charter boards that govern the schools," he wrote.
Asked for comment, Maine Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said: "The beauty of public charter schools is that you can close them when they are underperforming, something that is much harder to do with public schools."
He said the department was disappointed that Maine Virtual Academy and three other charter school applicants that were rejected by Maine's Charter School Commission last week hadn't had an opportunity to be interviewed by the commission.
"I don't think that anybody said that the commission should have approved these schools, but we wished they had an opportunity for an interview," he said. "It seemed that, with some of them, some pretty minor adjustments could have allowed them to have passed."
Gov. Paul LePage's office did not respond to requests for comment Thursday. The governor condemned the charter commission's decisions in two news conferences last week, suggesting it had rejected four of the five applications because of "intimidation" by Maine's teachers union and school superintendents association, and calling for the commissioners to resign.
"I am asking them, for the good of the kids of the state of Maine, please go away," LePage said of the commissioners. "We don't need you. We need some people with backbones."
The president of the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers came to the commissioners' defense.
"Those who start a charter school are entrusted with millions of public dollars and with the education, health and safety of other people's children," the association's Greg Richmond wrote in a letter to the editor submitted to the Press Herald. "Such responsibilities should only be given to those who clearly demonstrate the capacity to fulfill them."
Staff Writer Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at: