By Sheena Dooley | Iowa Watchdog
DES MOINES — Florida’s top education leaders are investigating allegations that a for-profit company that also contracts with an Iowa school district used improperly certified teachers and then had other staff cover it up, according to a new report.
The Florida Department of Education’s review of the largest online education provider, K12 Inc., comes after at least one teacher was told by her supervisor to sign a roster saying she had taught 112 students. She, however, only provided instruction to seven and refused to sign the document, according to a Miami Herald report.
The reason behind K12′s request? The educator had the certification to teach those students, while their actual instructors did not, the report said.
Iowa districts, like Florida, do not employ the teachers who serve students enrolled in virtual academies. K12 Inc. runs one of the state’s first full-time online education programs through a contract with the Clayton Ridge School District. The district opened its academy this school year and enrolled 70 students from 40 mostly rural school districts. It allows students in grades K-6 to receive an education without ever leaving their home.
Allan Nelson, Clayton Ridge superintendent, said the district plans to put safeguards in place to ensure problems experienced in other states like Florida don’t happen in Iowa.
He, however, only knew one of the two teachers employed by K12 Inc. to work in Iowa and had yet to check the other educator’s credentials, he said.
K12 Inc. receives nearly 97 percent of the additional $420,000 in Iowa taxpayer dollars the district will get due to its increase in student enrollment through the virtual academy. Officials with the company did not return phone calls seeking comment.
“In our service agreement we explained that all teaching services must be delivered by properly licensed teachers,” Nelson said. “They are bound by contract and law. But what I should do is make sure I see the certificates.
“We have such a small school. We really know our teachers well,” he said.
Clayton Ridge has an enrollment of just more than 600 students in its traditional classroom, according to 2011-12 state figures.
Officials with the Iowa Department of Education declined to comment on the Florida investigation but said they are developing criteria for evaluating online programs, which will receive extra scrutiny this year to ensure state accreditation rules are followed.
A portion of their efforts will include student surveys and checks on teacher certification, said Staci Hupp, spokeswoman for the department. The state education department is expected to report back to lawmakers in January when they reconvene.
State education leaders also declined comment regarding confidential company documents that were obtained by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida, both nonprofit groups. In the documents, Chip Hughes, K12’s executive vice president of school services, laid out the company’s class-size formula, which provides smaller student loads for districts that provide the most per pupil funding. It showed teachers may have as many as 275 students, according to the document.
For example, districts paying $4,000 or more per student — which would be the case in Clayton Ridge — receive a 225-to-1 student-teacher ratio in high school. For grades K-8, the ratio drops to 60-to-1, according to the document.
Clayton Ridge’s program is too small for teachers to carry large student loads. It currently has a 35-to-1 student-teacher ratio because of its low enrollment.
“Starting out small allows us to keep better track of our practices and employees,” Nelson said. “We are developing a new school, and we will make mistakes like any other school just getting up and operating. We are looking for help and guidance, and we want to be held accountable.”
Sheena Dooley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.