By Darcy Bedortha.
On Thursday, February 26th I had the privilege of joining a conference call regarding the release of a report sponsored by In The Public Interest, documenting the performance of the K12 Inc. subsidiary California Virtual Academy. This was of interest to me because, even after more than a year away from my own experience with a K12 Inc affiliated virtual school, I am still, continuously it seems, connected. (See 15 Months in Virtual Charter Hell: A Teacher’s Tale). Nothing that was reported by the study’s authors was surprising to me. The research I had done in a personal (and then quite public) attempt to explain my own experience pointed clearly to the same conclusions – the for-profit and arguably predatory model of “education” is failing our students.
What has been surprising to me is the frequency with which this issue rises to the surface in my world. Out of the blue I am still contacted by people who simply want to vent, cry, or share a similar story, or by journalists wanting one more question answered, or by students who have failed online and are now showing up at an alternative program I am involved with, or sometimes inadvertently by other students who need a tutor because they are not finding success in their own attempt at “online school”. It is stunning the number of people who happen to cross paths with me who have been impacted by one of these corporately-owned virtual schools.
Recently I and a growing number of vocal opponents to our own district’s sponsorship of a K12 Inc affiliate spoke out at a public forum regarding the renewal of its charter. In a well-earned victory, our district stood for ethics above profits, and denied the charter’s renewal. I doubt that it will mean the end of the charter school, regardless of the fact that its most recent data showed between 10 and 16% of its students were graduating. The marketing department at K12 Inc is a powerful and highly skilled force, and I am certain they will convince a small district, strapped for cash, that this is a money-making opportunity. The market-eers are undoubtedly already on the search…
The report cited a number of failures I was quite familiar with: low graduation rate, high student turnover, high demands on teaching staff for clerical work, questionable attendance policies, overworked counselors, frustrated students, technological challenges, etc. None of this was new. Neither was the accusations of K12 Inc’s heavy handed or even “aggressive” recruitment practices. Everything I read in the report, and everything I heard in the conference call confirmed what I had also experienced and what my own research had uncovered. In the executive summary of the ITPI report it states:
Several findings suggest that the virtual education model advanced by K12 Inc. in California does not adequately serve many of its students. In every year since it began graduating students, except 2013, CAVA has had more dropouts than graduates. Its academic growth was negative for most of its history and it did not keep up with other demographically similar schools after 2005. Its Academic Performance Index scores consistently ranked poorly against other demographically similar schools and the state as a whole. Evidence of low quality educational materials, understaffing of clerical employees and low teacher salaries all indicates that an additional investment of resources in the classroom is necessary for improvement. (2015. Virtual Public Education in California. p1. via Inthepublicinterest.org)
One of the points made in the report that I did find disturbing was the truly tiny size of some of the districts CAVA had pursued to “house” the schools. It appears that the point was to find a district so small that a) they were likely struggling financially and would therefore be an easier “mark” and b) they would be easily overwhelmed by the size of the beast. While each CAVA school (there are 11 at the time of the report) is allegedly “managed” by an independent board (the report questions this reality, and my experience agrees) each home district maintains responsibility for oversight. One tiny district with a core population of 30 was therefore responsible for oversight of its own small school as well as the comparatively monstrous enrollment of more than 3,000. According to the report, CAVA’s total enrollment is equivalent to 80% of the core enrollment at its authorizing districts (p42).
The report’s authors interviewed many CAVA teachers and parents who had at one time been pleased with the program. Increasingly, they suggest, there have been changes which have led to frustration and dissatisfaction. I worked with a student last summer who had failed at CAVA and moved out of California. When I shared my story with him he shook his head and said “it all makes sense now… it wasn’t just me!” What is happening at CAVA, at Insight, at Agora and at countless other K12 Inc and other corporate affiliates across the country (and around the world!) is staggeringly similar. And yet, it continues. I have been urging another regional district to step away from conversations with K12’s rebranded program, once Aventa now Fuel Education but the marketing executives are more convincing than my story. How can an entity like this slip out of one identity and into another as easily as changing clothes? How can they continue to establish non-profit fronts to “manage” their schools while controlling every practice and policy and capturing every tax dollar? How can they continue to influence legislation which increasingly favors their brand of business, at the expense of our kids?
I wish I could believe that this report might mark a turning point in the battle to wrest our schools away from corporate profiteers and reclaim public education for the public good, but I think we still have work to do. For sure, we are working, and we are fighting. For example, I am awaiting an upcoming film by investigative journalist John Merrow titled School Sleuth, which has its first screening in Washington DC on March 13. The film will premier as part of Digital Learning Day during the Teaching & Learning Conference. It has been over a year since my interview, but rumor has it that my story lends some insight (and perhaps some footage) to the film. Writers and advocates across the country are weaving their stories into an ever-tightening net that faux-reformers will soon be unable to slip through. State and local legislators, school boards, and brave administrators are confronting bad policy. Teachers, parents and students are standing together in rapidly-increasing numbers, questioning standardization, refusing to participate in testing, and challenging policymakers to experience the tests themselves. Some brave officials have done so, and have then understood, rethinking the direction we have headed. There is hope, but we all have a role to play in this effort.
Until all legislators begin to listen to parents and teachers and to the students we serve, until we, as a nation, stand up and say “Not OUR schools, not OUR kids”. Until we begin asking the important questions – What is the purpose of education? What does it even mean to be educated? What does a young adult actually need to know to be successful in his or her community and world? What do we value in a citizen, in a leader, in a neighbor? What kind of human creativity will lead us into the world we want our grandchildren to inherit? Or, How far can a student really fly if they are allowed to pursue that which intrigues them? – Until we start asking these questions, we will continue to spin our wheels collectively, cycle after cycle, in this mess, at the mercy of the for-profit predators and hedge-fund bankers who are siphoning our future to fill Wall Street’s tank.