K12 Inc: California Virtual Academies defend online charter schools as model of school choice

In a vigorous defense, officials behind the California Virtual Academies branded this news organization's investigation into their online charter schools "wrong and insulting" and an attack against a model of school choice.

But critics of K12 Inc., the Wall Street-traded company that runs the profitable but low-performing academies, called for greater oversight of its practices.

The newspaper's two-day series examined how K12 Inc., reaps tens of millions of dollars in state funding while graduating fewer than half of the students enrolled in its high schools.

In a letter sent to teachers Monday afternoon, the schools' academic administrator, April Warren, called the newspaper's investigative series "a gross mischaracterization of all of the work that you all do on a regular basis." But despite their broad condemnations, neither Warren nor other school officials alleged any specific factual inaccuracies in the series.

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The investigation, published Sunday and Monday, also reported that teachers have been asked to inflate attendance and enrollment records used to determine taxpayer funding.

K12 says the schools operate independently and are locally controlled. But the newspaper's review of the academies' contracts, tax records and other financial information suggest the Virginia-based company calls the shots, operating the schools to make money by taking advantage of laws governing charters and nonprofit organizations. K12's heavily marketed model in California has helped the company collect more than $310 million in state funding over the past 12 years.

State Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, said the performance of any publicly financed school should be a matter of concern for taxpayers -- and lawmakers.

"Charter schools were created to give parents and students an alternative to how public schools were delivering instruction," Beall said Monday. "But it has never been the state's intent to permit online for-profit charter schools to fail students or gouge taxpayers. Students must not be viewed as cash cows."

However, the company, a top administrator for the online school network and the board of directors for one of the academies serving Bay Area students all released similarly worded statements Monday, blasting the newspaper's investigation.

Together, members of the California Virtual Academy at San Mateo's board of directors called allegations that they have "any other interest except for our children" and their families both "wrong and insulting."

The statement said the network of online schools has for years endured similar attacks on its track record from charter opponents and the California Teachers Association, which is attempting to unionize employees at the schools.

"Parents want choice in education," the statement said. "Students deserve options because one size does not fit all. We love our school."

The board insisted in its statement that each of the K12-partner schools are "governed independently by their nonprofit school boards made up of California residents including parents, educators, and local community leaders."

The newspaper's investigation revealed that two of the four board members at the San Mateo County school -- board president Don Burbulys and member Stephen Warren -- are related to top academy administrators who are hand-picked by K12.

Burbulys, who is married to Dean of Students Laura Terrazas, lives in Soquel in Santa Cruz County, and Warren, who is the brother-in-law of April Warren, lives in Riverside County.

Defending her brother-in-law's oversight of her work, April Warren wrote in her letter to teachers that "relatives are permitted to serve on a California nonprofit board" and that "several school districts have people who sit on their boards that are either parents, employees or are related to employees of the district that they serve."

The California Charter Schools Association and California Teachers Association on Monday said the Legislature should take a hard look at whether for-profit companies like K12 should be operating schools in California and whether the state can do more to ensure charter schools are overseen properly.

"When taxpayer money is used to fund education, those dollars should go to help kids," said California Teachers Association President Eric Hines. "In this case, we have no idea how the company is spending our tax dollars and it's not right. This is pretty basic stuff."

Online charter schools only work with a fraction of the kids enrolled in California's roughly 1,200 charters, but that doesn't mean they should be held to a lower standard of accountability, said Emily Bertelli, a spokeswoman for the California Charter Schools Association, which publicly called for the closure of a K12-run school in 2011 only to see the school reopened with a new name under the same authorizer.

Former Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said in an interview Monday that none of the newspaper's findings surprised him. He said he'd seen many of the same issues unfold in his state, where he tried, and failed to shut down K12's Tennessee Virtual Academy because of poor performance.

"This company's efforts to grow bear no relationship whatsoever to the quality of their results in California and across the country," Huffman said.

"You would hope that an online virtual school -- especially one run by a for-profit company -- would only have the opportunity to grow with really high-quality results," Huffman said. "K12 isn't coming close to meeting a high bar in terms of quality."

One Redwood City parent who contacted this newspaper, saying the investigative series "hit close to home," said his son, who is now a sophomore in college, took K12's advanced courses, earned A's and B's and finished at the top of his class when he was a student at one of the company-run California schools. But when his son applied to a local community college, he was stunned to learn he had to take remedial math and English courses because he was so far behind.

Other parents, however, contacted the newspaper to defend the schools, saying the online learning model was vital to their sons' and daughters' academic success.

Maureen Behlen said her son thrived in K12's school because she "put everything into it," spending several hours a day teaching him and guiding him through his coursework. She said an online school isn't the right fit for families who can't devote as much time to the program as she did.

"Would you send a bunch of kids into a classroom with no teachers? Of course not," said Behlen, who lives in the foothills in East San Jose. "There has to be an adult responsible for overseeing what they're learning, and if there isn't, you're setting them up to fail."

Contact Jessica Calefati at 916-441-2101. Follow her at Twitter.com/Calefati.