From The Miami Herald, BY TREVOR AARONSON AND JOHN O’CONNOR, FLORIDA CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING/STATEIMPACT FLORIDA
Student-teacher ratios at K12, the nation’s largest online educator, are nearly twice as high as Florida’s state-run virtual school, according to internal company documents obtained by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida.
A high school teacher working for K12 may have as many as 275 students, compared to Florida Virtual School, which has a maximum class size of 150.
“The concept of one teacher managing 275 or 300 students — it just doesn’t make sense,” said Luis Huerta, a Columbia University education professor who studies online education. “It’s hard to believe one person could do that. You have teacher-pupil ratios that are ten times what it would be in a traditional school.”
According to company documents, K12 provides better student-teacher ratios to schools that pay more per student, though even the best ratios are higher than the state-run competitor’s.
The publicly traded K12 operates in 43 Florida school districts, including in Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, Orange and Duval counties, with students ranging in education level from kindergarten to high school.
K12 has come under fire for high student-teacher ratios and poor student performance in Arizona, Georgia and Tennessee. A July 2012 study by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado found that K12’s students fell further behind in reading and math scores than traditional students.
The online educator is now under investigation by the Florida Department of Education for allegedly using improperly certified teachers and asking employees to cover up the practice.
Better Pay, Better Ratio
K12’s executive vice president of school services, Chip Hughes, laid out the company’s class-size formula in a confidential April 2010 memo.
Under the formula, the more a school district pays, the better the student-teacher ratio.
School districts that pay $4,000 or more per student receive a 225-to-1 student-teacher ratio in high school classes. Districts paying less than $3,000 per student have a 275-to-1 ratio.
By contrast, Florida Virtual Schools, a state-run competitor to K12, uses a maximum ratio of 150-to-1. Florida’s Class Size Amendment, which does not govern online education, allows for a maximum of 25 students per classroom.
Asked if the ratios in the internal company memo are accurate, K12 spokesman Jeff Kwitowski said in a statement: “As with traditional schools, it varies by school, grade and course.”
No industry standard exists for student-teacher ratios in online education — the field is still new and little research is available. But education experts believe teacher involvement with students has the greatest effect on academic achievement.
K12 contracts with local school districts to provide virtual education to students throughout Florida. The for-profit online educator does not report student-teacher ratios to local school districts, and public school administrators have no way to audit a teacher’s student load independently, since one K12 teacher could have students scattered around the country.
Earlier this month, FCIR and StateImpact Florida revealed an ongoing state investigation of K12 involving teacher certification.
The state Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General, prompted by school officials in Seminole County, is examining whether K12 uses improperly certified teachers, in violation of state law. K12 allegedly asked certified teachers to sign for having taught students they never encountered, according to documents that are part of the investigation.
In a Feb. 15, 2011, email, K12’s Samantha Gilormini wrote to certified teachers in Florida: “So if you see your name next to a student that might not be yours it’s because you were qualified to teach that subject and we needed to put your name there.”
Gilormini sent one K12 teacher in Seminole County a roster of more than 100 students. She only recognized seven names and refused to sign. According to a subsequent survey conducted by school officials in Seminole County, only 36 percent of parents said their child’s teacher was the one K12 had listed.
It’s not just a problem in Seminole County. Leon County school administrators said they’ve moved one student out of a K12 class led by a teacher who did not have the correct subject certifications.
Seminole County school officials said the K12 problems uncovered there may exist statewide.
Following disclosure of the state probe, public school officials in Brevard and Volusia counties are checking the teacher information K12 has provided.
The Department of Education is limiting its investigation to Seminole County and the allegation concerning K12’s business there, according to spokeswoman Cheryl Etters.
Meanwhile, K12 executives have been trying to calm shareholders spooked by the state inquiry. In a conference call with investors Sept. 13, K12 CEO Ron Packard said news reports about the company’s internal documents in Seminole County included “rumormongering and absurd extrapolations.”
“All teachers teaching Seminole County students were Florida certified, and in our internal review, we have only identified minor mistakes in matching the appropriate grade and course certifications with specific students and courses,” Packard said.
K12 has maintained in public statements that the state has certified all company teachers in Florida. But that may not be enough to meet the state legal requirement.
In Florida, teachers must receive not only general state certification but also course-specific certification. Under Florida law, for example, a reading teacher cannot teach a science course.
Asked whether K12 teachers in Florida have the necessary course certifications for the classes they teach, company spokesman Kwitowski did not provide a direct answer.
“You’re asking me to get into the details of the matter currently under review by the state, which I can’t do,” he said. “As we’ve repeatedly stated, K12 teachers who teach students in Florida are appropriately state certified.”
The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization supported by foundations and individual contributions. For more information, visit fcir.org. StateImpact Florida is a project of NPR, WUSF Public Media and WLRN Public Media. For more information, visit stateimpact.npr.org/florida.