Virtual Charter schools: here to help students or make money for adults?

By  John O’Connor and Trevor Aaronson, StateImpact Florida/Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Hundreds of South Florida students are taking classes from Virginia-based K12 Inc., the nation’s largest online education company.

Now, the company hopes to establish charter schools across the state. They would not be traditional charter schools, but online schools. Their students would never set foot in a school building.

Public-school officials across Florida are asking, “Why?”

“I’m not sure what need it would fill,” said Judi Zanetti, chairwoman of the Marion County School Board.

Students in traditional schools, in charter schools and who are home-schooled can already take K12 classes in 42 Florida school districts, including about 300 students in Miami-Dade and many more in Broward.

K12 says online charter schools are one more way to customize students’ educations. It says its new schools would allow students to learn at their own pace and take classes on their own schedules.

School district officials and researchers worry that K12 might be trying to avoid scrutiny from local educators.

The importance of such oversight was highlighted by a Seminole County review of K12’s teachers.

The district said it found emails from K12 employees that suggested the company used teachers who were not properly certified and had asked teachers to help cover up that fact.

The Florida Department of Education is investigating K12.

Meanwhile, several county school districts have rejected K12’s charter school applications. Some have taken the company to court to keep the schools from opening.

The online charter school network, called the Florida Virtual Academy — not to be confused with the state-run Florida Virtual School — has applied to open in at least nine Florida school districts. Florida Virtual Academy at Osceola County opened earlier this year, the first school in the network to do so.

As with all charter schools, the Florida Virtual Academies would be overseen by a nonprofit board of directors. K12 would supply the teachers and curriculum.

K12 spokesman Jeff Kwitowski said students and parents are seeking schools that work best for them.

“Our mission is to provide innovative education solutions for all public schools, and give families more options,” Kwitowski wrote in an email. “We have strong relationships with our public-school partners around the country and [are] proud to serve them.”

School districts have little say over charter schools once they have been approved, and can close a school only for poor performance, financial troubles or a violation of the school’s charter.

Florida school districts have repeatedly rejected Florida Virtual Academy applications. They cite what they call an outdated curriculum that does not meet new national standards and budgets that do not include plans to provide computers and Internet access to enough low-income students.

Earlier this year, Miami-Dade rejected three virtual charter applications that did not have a contract with a curriculum provider.

A spokesman for Mater Virtual Charter School, Mater Virtual Academy Charter Middle/High School and Somerset Virtual Academy Charter Middle/High, all managed by Academica, said in July that the schools had an unsigned contract with K12 and would reapply.

But in at least six cases, the Florida Board of Education has overruled districts and said the K12 charter schools should be approved.

Duval, Orange, Seminole and Volusia schools have gone to court to prevent the online charter schools from opening.

Broward and Palm Beach counties have accepted the state board’s decision.

The Pasco and Marion county school boards debated Florida Virtual Academy applications last month and reached different conclusions.

The Marion County School Board unanimously voted to reject the application, citing concerns about the state investigation of K12.

School Board Chairman Judi Zanetti said Marion County schools already offer three online options, including one provided by K12. State law requires school districts to provide online courses — either their own program or one run by a contractor such as K12.

“Our students are offered several opportunities to participate in virtual school or online learning if that is their choice,” Zanetti said. “I’m not sure what new things this particular charter school would be bringing to us at this time.”

Pasco County school officials saw things differently.

In a review of Florida Virtual Academy’s application, Pasco County schools charter school supervisor Nancy Scowcroft questioned K12’s ties to the nonprofit board overseeing the school.

“There is no clear and convincing evidence that the governing body will have financial authority over the school or be independent from the [Education Service Provider, K12],” Scowcroft wrote. “There is no clear and convincing evidence of an arm’s length relationship between the governing board and the ESP.”

Despite those and other concerns, Scowcroft concluded that the district had no grounds to reject the application under state law. The School Board was scheduled to vote on the application this month.

Columbia University professor Luis Huerta said the connections between for-profit education firms and the nonprofit boards overseeing charter schools are a problem around the country.

Last year, StateImpact Florida and The Miami Herald documented the close relationship between charter school boards and those that profit from the school’s operations.

For example, a school’s founder can also be its landlord and food-service provider. The board approving those contracts may be composed of family or business associates.

“It’s almost a front, if you will, that’s set up,” Huerta said. “Whether there is anything illegal about this is not clear.

“In the interim, we see these enormous accountability abysses.”

There are also unanswered questions about how K12 operates.

Teacher-to-student ratios as high as 275-to-1, according to internal K12 documents obtained by StateImpact Florida and Florida Center for Investigative Reporting that show its pricing plans.

And while there is no state or national standard for online-school class sizes, that ratio is almost twice as high as Florida’s other large online educator: the state-run Florida Virtual School.

After the State Board of Education overruled Seminole County schools’ rejection of a Florida Virtual Academy application, the school district went to court to prevent the online charter school from opening.

While that case is pending in court, K12’s Florida Virtual Academy filed another application in Seminole County.

Now school district officials must decide whether they want to face being overruled by the state again, or reversing their previous decision.

“These people don’t just want to compete with us,” School Board member Diane Bauer told The Orlando Sentinel. “They want to replace the program we have.”

At Broward Virtual School, run under contract with K12, Principal Chris McGuire said the firm has proven it can get results with students.

“They’ve been responsible partners for us,” McGuire said of K12 programs overseen by the state and local school district. “They had great student achievement results . . . they had plenty of data for us to look at.”

McGuire does, however, question the need for so many K12-run schools.

“If districts are required to run a virtual charter program, why is a full-time charter school program necessary?” McGuire asked.

Kwitowski, the K12 spokesman, said the answer is customization. More than 2,000 public schools use K12 courses and academic programs, he said.

“In many cases, there are multiple school districts and public charter schools in the same state that use K12 for their online and blended schools,” Kwitowski wrote.

“With K12, each school and district can customize their own school program, providing more opportunities for students and more choices for parents.”

StateImpact Florida is an education reporting project of NPR, WUSF in Tampa and WLRN in Miami. For more information, visit The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization supported by foundations and individual contributions. For more information, visit

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