Source: California Virtual Academies

The leading online charter school network in California has a troubling record of poor academic outcomes and a questionable financial relationship with its for-profit parent company, according to a report released Thursday from a watchdog organization.

California Virtual Academies, the largest provider of online public K-12 education in the state, is generating more high school dropouts than graduates while collecting attendance funds for students who log in for one minute a day, or don’t participate at all, according to the report from In the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based research group that examines government contracting.

“We’ve had kids enrolled in school that we’ve never seen in a classroom and never seen any evidence of any work,” said Danielle Hodge, a special education teacher at California Virtual Academies.

“The online model can work for some students for whom the traditional classroom is not a good fit,” said Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest. But California Virtual Academies, owned by the Virginia-based K12 Inc. and operated by its subsidiary K12 California, is using recruitment practices that sweep in students who are not succeeding, he said. “The virtual education model used by K12 California does not adequately serve many of its students,” Cohen said.

Katrina Abston, senior head of school of California Virtual Academies, said in a statement that the report from In the Public Interest was “inaccurate and deeply flawed” and relied on “misinformation” from teachers who have filed an intention to unionize.

“California Virtual Academies follow all state laws and accountability requirements, and their record on compliance is very strong,” Abston said. All California Virtual Academies schools undergo annual financial audits by independent external auditors, she said, and have “a long record of clean findings with no material weaknesses.”

California Virtual Academies, which has grown from 650 students in 2002 to 14,500 students currently, is a network of 11 virtual school locations with 766 teachers. Students work on computers at their homes under the guidance of parents or guardians. Each location receives full, per-pupil education state funding, but how that money is spent, and how much of the money becomes profit for K12 Inc., is unknown, the report said. K12 Inc. is a publicly traded education company that is the largest for-profit operator of virtual schools nationwide.

In a relationship potentially fraught with conflict of interest, according to the report, K12 Inc. is both the manager and the vendor for California Virtual Academies. It pays itself for services, including management, curriculum and equipment rental, out of California Virtual Academies’ bank account. Contracts reviewed by the researchers found that schools were forbidden from obtaining competitive bids. In 2012-13, California Virtual Academies received $95 million in state funding and paid roughly half of that – $47 million – to K12 Inc., the report said.

While the California Virtual Academies receive the same per-pupil funding as traditional public schools, computer equipment is often substandard, laboratory supplies such as microscopes have been replaced by online microscopes, teachers are poorly paid and turnover for both staff and students is high, the report said.

Kathy Klein, a San Bernardino parent, said that the virtual academies have been a good environment for her son, who enrolled in 4th grade to escape bullying at school. But the experience has deteriorated, she said. The computer provided by the virtual academy was “a real dinosaur and basically non-functional,” she said. “I sent it back and was told we would not receive another.” In one of her son’s classes, 80 students were taught by one online teacher.

Cara Bryant, a teacher at California Virtual Academies for nine years, said attendance policies seem driven by the need to maximize per-pupil funding. “We were told to give students attendance credit as long as they are logged in at least one minute a day,” she said.

Special education services, in particular, were allegedly inadequate or never provided, the report said.

Danielle Hodge, a special education teacher at California Virtual Academies, said that the online program has worked very well for some special education students, including anxious students who find it easier to focus when they’re not at school, or students with information processing delays who can review the material at their own pace. “They are able to re-watch the recorded instruction,” Hodge said. “That’s very helpful for some of these students.”

But she said others can’t keep up with the curriculum, which is not modified from grade-level standards, or don’t receive the special education services they need, such as medical help or speech pathologist consultation. She said she has sent 126 emails seeking medical services to provide critical treatment for a special education student’s disability, but the student has not yet received services.

According to the report, other students stay on the attendance rolls, which are reported by their parents, but never show up.

“We’ve had kids enrolled in school that we’ve never seen in a classroom and never seen any evidence of any work,” Hodge said. “They don’t answer phone, or email. The parent says, ‘My student worked one hour,’ but we don’t see the student.”

In the last four years, the California Virtual Academies’ overall graduation rate was 36 percent, compared to 78 percent for California as a whole, the report said. In a response, Abston said that the California Department of Education acknowledges that state graduation figures are not always correct because it is unable to accurately measure graduation rates for nontraditional schools with higher student mobility.

The report said that improvements in the state’s Academic Performance Index at the virtual academies has lagged performance at demographically similar schools. “After two good years in 2003-04 and 2004-05, CAVA students as a whole fell behind their peers at similar schools in every subsequent year,” the report said.

California led the nation in 1999 by passing legislation to increase accountability and oversight of what was then described as nonclassroom-based learning, including home schooling, said Luis Huerta, associate professor of education and public policy at Teachers College at Columbia University, and co-author of the 2014 National Education Policy Center report on virtual schools in the U.S.

“One of the biggest issues that’s come up with for-profits running charter schools is that they have the foresight to enter into memorandums of understanding that limit the ability of districts to oversee them, including keeping them from full public audits,” Huerta said.

The for-profit companies want to be treated like contractors, such as a janitorial service provider, which are not subject to the same level of public disclosure of costs and profits, he said. “But because these groups are providing soup-to-nuts services to schools, hiring teachers and selling curriculum, for the public interest side they shouldn’t be excluded from public audits,” he said.

Out of concern that these nonclassroom-based charter schools could keep portions of state funds intended to be spent on education, in 2002 the State Board of Education issued statutes requiring that they spend a designated percent of their total public funding on certificated staff and salaries. According to the report, that percentage, set by the California Department of Education, now is 40 percent, and the salaries provided at the virtual academies – typically about $20,000 less than traditional public school teacher salaries – are too low to meet that benchmark.

The California Virtual Academies school sites are named Fresno, Jamestown, Kings, Los Angeles, Maricopa, Maricopa High, San Diego, San Joaquin, San Mateo, Sonoma and Sutter. They operate as charters under the authorization of nearby school districts that don’t necessarily correlate with the name of the school. The California Virtual Academy@San Diego, for example, is authorized by Spencer Valley Elementary School District.


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  1. Gabriela Novak 10 months ago10 months ago

    I was repeatedly assured by the homeroom teacher that my daughter is on track to receive As at the end of school, if her progress continues at the same rate. My daughter was completing all her assignments at or near 100%, so this was not surprising. However, I was concerned, because the record online showed her progress at a C level. Her homeroom teacher, who was in charge of her overall progress, reassured me that … Read More

    I was repeatedly assured by the homeroom teacher that my daughter is on track to receive As at the end of school, if her progress continues at the same rate. My daughter was completing all her assignments at or near 100%, so this was not surprising. However, I was concerned, because the record online showed her progress at a C level. Her homeroom teacher, who was in charge of her overall progress, reassured me that these grades would only be assigned if she stopped completing her lessons at that very moment and never completed another lesson until the end of the school year.

    Some weeks before the school year ended I emailed the homeroom teacher again and then spoke with her through a Skype call. I wanted to make absolutely sure that all is in order. I was told that a few work samples were to be turned in and that an essay was to be received, both were sent in shortly after. I called the teacher again and, again, was reassured that all is in order.

    To my great shock, I received a report card for my daughter, which showed two Bs and three Cs. Understandably, I immediately emailed the teacher. She told me that this must have been before we communicated. I wasn’t quite sure how a report card was generated before the end of school, but assumed that the teacher must know the situation.

    However, in the following email the teacher notified me that these are my daughter’s final grades! She said that an entire series of assignments, which we were never told about, were not completed. This was never mentioned to us, despite my repeated communication with the teacher.

    My daughter cannot be expected to complete assignments we were never made aware of and not even the teacher knew of when I spoke with her shortly before the end of the year!

    The teacher is now not responding and neither is her supervisor. My daughter’s entire school year is ruined.

    We were blatantly lied to about my daughter’s progress and grades!

  2. el 1 year ago1 year ago

    There are stories like this about K12 Inc from multiple states, not just California. Achievement is low, graduation rates are low, and they have played lots of interesting and almost commendably creative games to maximize per student funding by artificially manipulating the students' official locale. There's nothing wrong with the idea of virtual education as an option for some families; indeed, I wish it had been available when I was a student. But, it seems … Read More

    There are stories like this about K12 Inc from multiple states, not just California. Achievement is low, graduation rates are low, and they have played lots of interesting and almost commendably creative games to maximize per student funding by artificially manipulating the students’ official locale.

    There’s nothing wrong with the idea of virtual education as an option for some families; indeed, I wish it had been available when I was a student. But, it seems clear that this particular for-profit incarnation exists to siphon money out of education funds into the private sector, rather than to benefit students.

  3. Andrew 1 year ago1 year ago

    Things are likely to get worse with charters. Despite their churn and burn ways with teachers, charters up until now have benefited from the glut of otherwise unemployed but competent teachers. The glut has been the result of FIFO layoffs and inability of newly credentialed teachers get jobs in conventional schools. These competent unemployed teachers took charter jobs in the recession, but in most cases are understandably ready to jump … Read More

    Things are likely to get worse with charters. Despite their churn and burn ways with teachers, charters up until now have benefited from the glut of otherwise unemployed but competent teachers. The glut has been the result of FIFO layoffs and inability of newly credentialed teachers get jobs in conventional schools. These competent unemployed teachers took charter jobs in the recession, but in most cases are understandably ready to jump ship and take the conventional jobs with security and good benefits that are finally opening up again.

  4. Don 1 year ago1 year ago

    We shouldn’t waste money on charter schools that cannot demonstrate reasonable academic performance over time. LEA and SEA authorizers need to do better jobs of monitoring their charters. They have a responsibility to safeguard the public trust. But a little perspective is in order. The federal government spent over $5B on SIG with little appreciable benefit. Where is the article and outrage over that massive boondoggle?

    Replies

    • Andrew 1 year ago1 year ago

      Good point on SIG, Don. Maybe it will be addressed when the current focus on closing gaps in achievement shifts to how the most capable students can attain the highest achievement within their capabilities. Some charter authorizers are small districts looking for a way to add charter funding to their budgets and/or looking to share overhead and administration expense with an authorized charter. Because charter law allows them to open satellite charter … Read More

      Good point on SIG, Don. Maybe it will be addressed when the current focus on closing gaps in achievement shifts to how the most capable students can attain the highest achievement within their capabilities.

      Some charter authorizers are small districts looking for a way to add charter funding to their budgets and/or looking to share overhead and administration expense with an authorized charter. Because charter law allows them to open satellite charter school campuses and also to serve online students outside their district boundaries, and even in adjacent counties, they are not always too concerned about quality of education. After all, it is not necessarily “their” kids who are being shortchanged as they draw the charter money for underperforming schools. So they may not be about to revoke the charter of an underperforming charter school.

      The California Department of Education now has the power to revoke the charter of an underperforming school. At present, though, revocation of an underperforming school’s charter by the CDE seems about as likely as the termination for cause of an underperforming tenured teacher in a conventional school.

      The CDE has initiated at least some actions to begin the process. The charter lawyers-up, trots out all manner of rationalizations, promises to behave better, claims its students are racially diverse or economically disadvantaged, etc. In the long run, nothing really changes.

      With an online charter such as mentioned in the article, there is plenty of money to hire high-priced lawyers. After all, teachers are paid $20,000 less per year than other schools. The online school doesn’t have to provide school buildings or busing or lunches. Even good new computers are very cheap these days and they apparently use old ones. What is there to spend money on, besides “administration” and for-profit charter management companies, if not lawyers?

  5. Andrew 1 year ago1 year ago

    The legislative deal allowing charter schools in California was that they would be exempt from much of the Cal Ed Code and regulation, but that they would be accountable to produce superior educational outcomes. The idea was that if they achieved good results, we didn't care so much how they did it. But on the whole, and with some notable exceptions, charters have produced mediocre to dismal academic results, especially considering the … Read More

    The legislative deal allowing charter schools in California was that they would be exempt from much of the Cal Ed Code and regulation, but that they would be accountable to produce superior educational outcomes. The idea was that if they achieved good results, we didn’t care so much how they did it.

    But on the whole, and with some notable exceptions, charters have produced mediocre to dismal academic results, especially considering the self-selecting nature of their students and parents. Add to this the charter reputation for “churn and burn” with their teachers, with abysmal turnover rates.

    The bargained for charter accountability seems to be almost non-existent, even though the State Department of Education was granted the power to directly revoke charters a few years back. So, many charter schools get the benefits of regulatory exemptions, but seem to face no consequences no matter how poor their academic outcomes. The poor outcomes don’t stop them from luring students and parents with their hype, and from diverting funds from conventional public schools with better academic outcomes and stable teaching staffs. Why aren’t they held to the deal that created them in the first place?

    Replies

    • FloydThursby1941 1 year ago1 year ago

      "stable" is the problem. Many should have been fired decades ago. Every school has lemons, and this is one thing all schools should adopt from charters. Replace Tenure with 3-5 year contracts. If a principal doesn't feel a teacher produces superior value commensurate with pay, they are free to hire another. If you are being paid 1.7 times as much as a starting teacher, you need to be outstanding, only … Read More

      “stable” is the problem. Many should have been fired decades ago. Every school has lemons, and this is one thing all schools should adopt from charters. Replace Tenure with 3-5 year contracts. If a principal doesn’t feel a teacher produces superior value commensurate with pay, they are free to hire another. If you are being paid 1.7 times as much as a starting teacher, you need to be outstanding, only call in sick when truly sick, focused, driven, and responsive to principals, students, and parents. You can have any opinion you want, but you have to be a dedicated teacher. Many schools now have teachers on 45-50k who are contributing more good to kids than teachers on 85-90k. It is always a recipe for disaster when pay is not related to productivity. It is inefficient. Traditional schools aren’t doing great. We’re near last in states in a nation near last in international comparisons and horribly inferior at teaching students in poverty. If California didn’t have nearly triple the national Asian percentage we’d be even lower. It’s unacceptable. These are the facts, and they are undisputed.

    • Don 1 year ago1 year ago

      Andrew, if you read the charter ed code it doesn't say, in effect, that the schools need to produce superior results. To my thinking, if the authorizers would hold the schools to the charter law, the schools would be more inclined to focus on meeting those requirements of law. But if the oversight is lacking, charters will be left to their own devices. Many applaud the new oversight of the LCAP, but ignore the need for … Read More

      Andrew, if you read the charter ed code it doesn’t say, in effect, that the schools need to produce superior results.

      To my thinking, if the authorizers would hold the schools to the charter law, the schools would be more inclined to focus on meeting those requirements of law. But if the oversight is lacking, charters will be left to their own devices. Many applaud the new oversight of the LCAP, but ignore the need for LEA authorizers to keep tabs on their charters. SFUSD barely pays them any notice but is glad to take the 1% oversight fee.

      In 47607 3b it says it must meet at least one of the following:

      (1) Attained its Academic Performance Index (API) growth target in
      the prior year or in two of the last three years both schoolwide and
      for all groups of pupils served by the charter school.
      (2) Ranked in deciles 4 to 10, inclusive, on the API in the prior
      year or in two of the last three years.
      (3) Ranked in deciles 4 to 10, inclusive, on the API for a
      demographically comparable school in the prior year or in two of the
      last three years.
      (4) (A) The entity that granted the charter determines that the
      academic performance of the charter school is at least equal to the
      academic performance of the public schools that the charter school
      pupils would otherwise have been required to attend, as well as the
      academic performance of the schools in the school district in which
      the charter school is located, …

      There are other newer standards with the creation of the California Collaborative on EE.

      47607.3. (a) If a charter school fails to improve outcomes for
      three or more pupil subgroups identified pursuant to Section 52052,
      or, if the charter school has less than three pupil subgroups, all of
      the charter school’s pupil subgroups, in regard to one or more state
      or school priority identified in the charter pursuant to
      subparagraph (A) of paragraph (5) of subdivision (b) of Section 47605
      or subparagraph (A) of paragraph (5) of subdivision (b) of Section
      47605.6, in three out of four consecutive school years, all of the
      following shall apply:
      (1) Using an evaluation rubric adopted by the state board pursuant
      to Section 52064.5, the chartering authority shall provide technical
      assistance to the charter school.
      (2) The Superintendent may assign, at the request of the
      chartering authority and with the approval of the state board, the
      California Collaborative for Educational Excellence to provide advice
      and assistance to the charter school pursuant to Section 52074.
      (b) A chartering authority shall consider for revocation any
      charter school to which the California Collaborative for Educational
      Excellence has provided advice and assistance pursuant to subdivision
      (a) and about which it has made either of the following findings,
      which shall be submitted to the chartering authority:
      (1) That the charter school has failed, or is unable, to implement
      the recommendations of the California Collaborative for Educational
      Excellence.
      (2) That the inadequate performance of the charter school, based
      upon an evaluation rubric adopted pursuant to Section 52064.5, is
      either so persistent or so acute as to require revocation of the
      charter.
      (c) The chartering authority shall consider increases in pupil
      academic achievement for all pupil subgroups served by the charter
      school as the most important factor in determining whether to revoke
      the charter.

  6. Gary Ravani 1 year ago1 year ago

    Over the years, and there have been plenty of those, I have frequently been confronted by rants about "running schools more like a business!" There are significant problems, many complex, with this entire concept beginning with the fact that schools do not and should not have the same objectives as a "business." (Neither should the practice of medical care for that matter.) When you do open the door to that kind of nonsense though, this article explains … Read More

    Over the years, and there have been plenty of those, I have frequently been confronted by rants about “running schools more like a business!”

    There are significant problems, many complex, with this entire concept beginning with the fact that schools do not and should not have the same objectives as a “business.” (Neither should the practice of medical care for that matter.)

    When you do open the door to that kind of nonsense though, this article explains what you get. Online schools [sic] behaving like Wall Street. I guess because they are Wall Street.

  7. TheMorrigan 1 year ago1 year ago

    “Alleges”

    When the evidence is this damning from multiple vantages and from multiple stakeholders (even those die-hard reformers like Whitney Tilson), I find it farcical that people “Still you keep o’ the windy side of the law” when it comes to K12 Inc.

    Replies

    • don 1 year ago1 year ago

      I just ran iinto the mother of my son’s 4th grade classmate whose son is enrolled in K12’s California Virtual Academy. She couldn’t be more pleased with the homeschooling experience her autistic son is having, especially compared to the hell the district put the family through at a traditional school.

      That said i don’t believe public charter schools should be for profit. This is not the incentive we want to nurture for educational progress and reform.

      • Andrew 1 year ago1 year ago

        Many of those on the autism spectrum find noise and crowds to be especially distracting or even painful, hindering their education, and they learn best in relative isolation. But the administrative push in conventional California schools is for "inclusion" in special education, and effectively little or no individualized or differentiated education for the SPED students. The game seems to be that you stick the autism spectrum kid in an overcrowded conventional … Read More

        Many of those on the autism spectrum find noise and crowds to be especially distracting or even painful, hindering their education, and they learn best in relative isolation. But the administrative push in conventional California schools is for “inclusion” in special education, and effectively little or no individualized or differentiated education for the SPED students. The game seems to be that you stick the autism spectrum kid in an overcrowded conventional class with an already overworked general ed teacher, and then have spread-very-thin special ed teacher check in from time to time, and pretend that suitable education is occurring. Meanwhile you collect general ed and special ed funding, and save money.

        The underlying philosophy seems to be that children learn best in herds, and that even autistic children who may learn best in solitude should be forced into herds. Those of us who conscientiously homeschooled our own children K-12 found that we could produce far superior outcomes with highly individualized learning and with no “herds.” And with no significant negative outcomes if well done.

        If you take reasonable and conscientious parents, and they homeschool their children, the outcomes on the whole tend to be very good, individually and statistically. This applies across a wide range of curriculums and approaches. From what I’ve seen of the outcomes, “canned” approaches such as those pushed by independent study charters could produce reasonably good outcomes when implemented by really conscientious parents. But the parents and students did the real work and the charters raked in the money in return for supplying some canned structure and little else. Independent, differentiated and individualized home education, in my experience, produces far superior outcomes to home charter education when conscientious, reasonable and intelligent parents are involved.

      • FloydThursby1941 1 year ago1 year ago

        Agreed, for profit schools are a bad idea. But we must make education a higher priority than political correctness, comfort, job security, prisons, TV, sports and dozens of other things. It’s ridiculous.

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