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An in-depth look by I-News - a Colorado-based nonprofit investigative news collaborative, Education News Colorado, and KUNC at the state’s online K-12 schools. Topics include: online K-12 school performance, state- and district-level oversight, and for-profit Education Management Organizations, such as K12 Inc.

Ahead Of Colorado Charter Renewal, Embattled K12 Inc. Facing Complaints Nationwide

KUNC File Photo

Former teachers and workers claim the for-profit virtual school management company K12 Inc. used tactics to hide high student turnover rates at the company’s schools, which were detrimental to school performance and education quality, according to court documents.

Over the past year KUNC has reported on operational issues and large teacher loads at Colorado Virtual Academy (COVA), a public school managed by K12 Inc.

The management company is currently embroiled in a class action lawsuit filed by shareholders, which started backed in January 2012. Court documents—specifically a June amended complaint—draw attention to student recruitment policies, grading policies and high student- teacher ratios at K12 Inc.-managed schools.

Benjamin Herold with WHYY wrote about the court documents last week, summarizing:

The former employees allege that K12-managed schools aggressively recruited children who were ill-suited for the company's model of online education. They say the schools then manipulated enrollment, attendance, and performance data to maximize tax-subsidized, per-pupil funding.

The information comes as Colorado Virtual Academy is at a crossroads. The school is in the process of seeking charter renewal from its authorizer, Adams 12 Five Star. If COVA doesn’t get the thumbs-up and fails to find an alternative authorizer, the 12-year-old school could face closure this summer.

Former COVA Employees Appear in Complaint

K12 Inc. manages virtual public schools in 29 states, operating them under “turnkey” management contracts, according to the complaint. Many of the confidential sources cited in the document were connected to one of the company’s largest schools, Agora Cyber Charter School in Pennsylvania. But Colorado Virtual Academy appears related to the following topics:

Recruitment. The lawsuit alleges that K12 Inc. knowingly enrolled students who would be a bad fit for K12 Inc. schools and were likely to drop out. One enrollment consultant hired to recruit students in Colorado and Arizona claimed that there was constant pressure to generate sales, describing the company’s sales philosophy as “enroll, enroll, enroll.”

Lax Grading and Attendance Practices. The lawsuit alleges that K12 Inc. used lax grading and attendance practices to maintain and artificially inflate enrollment. One former COVA academic advisor claimed there was a push by administrators to keep students enrolled until the October count date, which determines school funding. Despite having information on date, time and duration of students’ engagement with the K12 Inc. software, “the only factor that was taken into account for attendance purposes was whether the student logged in.”

High Student to Teacher Ratios. Once students were enrolled at K12 Inc. schools, the lawsuit alleges that teachers were overwhelmed by the number of students. One former Texas Virtual Academy teacher claimed they reached out to K12 Inc.’s Mary Gifford, who now serves as the interim head of COVA, to discuss the problem. Gifford arranged a conference call with teachers to discuss the issue. The complaint reads:

When the teachers raised the issue of teacher student ratios, however, Gifford refused to acknowledge that the numbers being provided by the teachers were accurate, and quickly “shut down” the discussion.

While K12 Inc. won't comment on the specifics of the pending litigation, Senior Vice President Jeff Kwitowski told KUNC via email, "K12 disputes these unproven allegations and is vigorously defending itself.  The Company will address these allegations in court. K12 is focused on developing innovative education programs and serving schools, teachers and students." 

Questions in Other States

Virtual public schools have seen tremendous growth in recent years as kids and parents seek the flexibility of online education at home. But in 2013 states have been making efforts to curb the expansion.

On January 28, the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education rejected eight cyber charter school applications, citing academic and financial concerns. On January 29, Tennessee legislators questioned the state’s largest virtual school and management company K12 Inc. about low test scores after its inaugural year. Governor Bill Haslam is currently seeking to cap enrollment at the state’s virtual schools.

In Colorado, the fate of K12 Inc. managed Colorado Virtual Academy could down to a February 6 meeting with Adams 12 Five Star Board of Education members. A staff recommendation from the district suggested a rejection of the school’s charter renewal. While board of education members questioned COVA officials at a January 16 meeting, there was no discussion on how members planned to vote.

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