K12 Inc Faces Questions About Practices in Florida, Georgia

SekingAlpha.com is reporting that the new academic year has not started well for one of the largest online education providers in the country — K12 Inc.

The issue is the representations made by company officials to administrators in charge of the Virtual Instruction Program in Seminole County, Florida, that the courses offered on the K12 platform were led by certified teachers. As subsequent investigations uncovered, that may not be entirely true.

The company was awarded the contract to run the VIP for Seminole in 2009, and that was when it assured members of the Florida Department of Education that all if its teachers were fully qualified and licensed to teach. The first signs that this might not be the case came last January, when tips allegedly originating from a disgruntled teacher formerly employed by the company suggested that instructors used by K12 weren’t up to snuff.

The tips pointed investigators to a series of emails and phone calls in August and September 2009 between Patty Betoni, the then-Director of Virtual Instruction Programs at Florida Virtual Academies (the K12 unit running Florida’s county-level virtual instruction programs; she now holds the title of Head of School) and Diane Lewis, Seminole County’s Director of Instructional Technology.

According to investigators, the company was struggling to find enough certified teachers to staff the VIP, but when Betoni inquired if she might use non-certified teachers as a temporary stop-gap, she was told she could not. Even if Florida education officials were inclined to be lenient, their hands were tied: according to the law, only state-certified teachers could lead classrooms in any charter school in the state, be it a brick-and-mortar or virtual.

There’s no answer why K12 chose to disregard the demands of Florida’s officials, but it’s clear that the system that was adopted went against both of the terms of the contract and state law. While the so-called “teacher of record,” who was fully certified in the subject, signed off on enrollment forms that verified that a student was matriculated in VIP, the “teacher of class” actually dealt with the day-to-day instruction. Although “teachers of class” are usually licensed instructors, they are not state-certified to teach the specific subject they were being ask to teach.

Some speculate that the decision to proceed was made because hiring teachers of record was an expense that shrunk the profit margins on the Florida contract to an unacceptable level.

Conversations with administrators of public and virtual schools reveal that the economics of staffing a faculty with only certified teachers makes a virtual school’s employee cost structure similar to a standard public school’s. In Seminole County’s case, a more likely scenario is that teachers with certification in one subject – science, for example – wound up instructing students in other courses too, such as math.

In addition to issues raised in Florida, K12 also finds itself fighting on at least one additional front. Early this summer, the company was cited for several violations by the Georgia Department of Education for issues dealing with their operation of Georgia Cyber Academy. The company has until the end of October to fix the problems outlined by the GDE, or the proceedings to revoke its charter will commence.

Yesterday, the company issued a response to the accusations leveled against it in the Seminole case. Although it didn’t wish to comment on specifics before Florida’s Inspector General has issued its final report, K12 says that its own internal investigation, aided by an independent counsel, found that the facts as outlined in the Seminole materials weren’t being interpreted correctly. The company has already cooperated and will continue to cooperate with the IG as it conducts its review of company practices.