January 18, 2013

Operator of Web charter schools gets a bad grade

A Colorado district slams K12 Inc. – which wants to start up in Maine – for its poor academic results.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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