The growing network of online academies operated by the Virginia company K12 Inc. is failing tests used to measure education success. Fewer than half of students who enroll in online high schools earn a diploma, and almost none are qualified to attend California's public universities.
Within the last few years, students and parents have been persuaded by advertising campaigns promoting digital high school. Thousands of California families, supported by hundreds of millions in state education funding, have subscribed to online high school programs.
K12 Inc. has accumulated more than $310 million in state funding over the past 12 years. The company is the nation's largest online school market, and it operates more charter schools in California than in any other state.
Ronald Packard, a former Goldman Sachs banker, and William Bennet, the former Secretary of Education under President Reagan, launched K12 Inc. in 2000. It opened its first virtual academies in San Diego, and it watched its student body grow from several hundred students to more than 15,000 today.
Yet the system is failing its students. Jessica Calefati of Bay Area News group launched the investigation into online high schools, contends that students, policymakers, and taxpayers are being cheated as the company takes advantage of them. "Sometimes I feel like a terrible parent for enrolling them," says Carol Brockmeier, a single mother from Santa Clara whose teenage daughters attended K12's San Mateo County-based academy.
The investigation found that students who spend as little as one minute logged into their academy are considered present for a full school day. Only half of the Academies' students are proficient in reading, and only a third are in math — levels that fall well below statewide averages. School district bureaucrats receive a cut of the digital academies' revenue, so they have an incentive to ignore shortcomings.
Furthermore, the virtual schools provide students with no sense of community, routine, or face-to-face interaction with educators, factors that considerably improve students' academic performances and provide a space for them to mature socially.
"This company has shown an inordinate level of failure, yet it's continually given lifelines by policymakers who have irresponsibly ignored what's going on," says Luis Huerta, a Columbia University professor of education and public policy.
For its part, officials of California Virtual Academies have criticized the investigation's findings as "wrong and insulting" and as an attack on school choice. In a letter sent to teachers, the school's academic administrator, April Warren, called the investigation "a gross mischaracterization of all the work that you all do on a regular basis." Despite their condemnations, however, no school official has countered any of the damning specifics brought to light by the report.
Calefati writes in The Mercury News writes that the California Charter Schools Association and California Teachers Association are urging the state legislature to scrutinize for-profit companies like K12, and determine whether they are effectively serving the needs of students. If not, they should be defunded, and the state should then lay out guidelines for ensuring quality oversight of charter schools.