By Tushar Rae | Special to Watchdog.org
DES MOINES – Full-time virtual schools in Iowa operated by for-profit companies have struggled to provide special education services, ensure staff are properly licensed and make good on their promises to state officials, according to records from the Iowa Department of Education.
Additionally, little documentation exists regarding student performance and the number of students who remain enrolled in the schools, which are operated by K12 Inc. and Connections Academy. The two companies contracted last year with the Clayton Ridge and CAM school districts, respectively, to provide online schools for students across the state.
The companies, which are headquartered in other states and educate a combined 315 students in Iowa, collect 96 percent of the state’s $6,000 per pupil funding. That equates to $1.8 million in Iowa taxpayer dollars shipped out of state.
Lawmakers required the Iowa Department of Education to provide a report documenting their compliance with state law and that they met the same expectations as traditional schools. In it, state education officials said the schools were operating within the law and recommended lawmakers continue to allow them. The report included enrollment and demographic data, as well as results of a survey completed by 124 of the two schools’ 315 students.
However, it failed to include issues flagged by the state during site visits to the two districts, which began offering the virtual schools to students at the start of this school year. An Iowa Watchdog review of records from the visits found problems with special education services and at least one instance in which a special education supervisor lacked proper licensure, according to documents from the visit.
Officials with K12 Inc. and Connections Academy did not respond to requests for comment.
The lack of scrutiny of the schools by the state, as well as information given to lawmakers, has created concerns among some.
“I really expected more oversight from the department,” said state Rep. Cindy Winckler, a retired teacher from Davenport.
Specifically, the Iowa Watchdog found:
- An administrator with Connections Academy provided special education services in several states, including Iowa, but was not properly licensed in Iowa. James Brauer, principal of the online school, told state officials that he would take over the position and change school documents to reflect the move. There was no evidence that the improperly licensed staff member was actually removed from the position.
- K12 Inc. officials instructed Amy Cummer, special education teacher for the Clayton Ridge online school, to bypass state officials when it came to questions and, instead, route them to a regional special education coordinator for K12 Inc.
- Questions from officials with Area Education Agencies, which provide special education services to school districts, were met with resistance by K12 Inc. The state encountered roadblocks when it came to addressing the needs of special education students and communication between the agency and company. They also found instances of noncompliance with state special education laws, and instances in which previous individualized education plans were copied and pasted into the current plans required under federal law.
- K12 Inc. failed to provide Cummer with the necessary instructional materials for students who were several grade levels behind.
- There was limited evidence that K12 Inc. implemented programs for gifted and talented, at-risk and students who speak little English as they were written in their original plans.
State and district officials shrugged off the issues, saying they also happen with brick-and-mortar schools and are not unusual when starting a new school. In one instance Amy Williamson, a state education official who is the main contact between the virtual schools and the department of education, said the issues noted by the area education agency were simply “one person’s opinion.”
She added that concerns raised by the area education agency regarding a lack of communication and not providing teachers with adequate instructional materials were no different than those of other traditional schools.
Allan Nelson, Clayton Ridge superintendent, called allegations that K12 Inc. provided a poor quality of education unfair and not reflective of the education the company provides Iowa students.
“You are measuring all of their schooling experiences,” Nelson said. “Everyone has a hit and miss record.”
The districts’ agreements with the companies – the first of its kind – set off a firestorm of controversy last year. Small districts feared virtual schools would create competition for students among already struggling districts. Educators also questioned the quality of education provided to students, given the companies’ track records in other states.
In Arizona, for example, K12 Inc. outsourced instructional responsibilities at the Arizona Virtual Academy to low-paid workers in India, according to a study co-authored by Gene Glass, a research professor at the University of Colorado. Online companies were also accused inflating enrollment in Colorado, which, like Iowa, doles out funding based on student numbers.
It’s unclear whether the companies did the same in Iowa. Staci Hupp, spokeswoman with the state education department, said Clayton Ridge and CAM enrolled 69 and 246 students, respectively, as of Oct. 1. Enrollment figures from that date are used to determine funding for the following school year. Hupp was unable to provide enrollment numbers from November after the official count was taken.
Another investigation of the companies by EdNews Colorado, a consortium of news organizations in the state, showed Colorado spent nearly $100 million in taxpayer dollars in 2011 on online schools. Of the 10,500 students enrolled in the state’s 10 largest online programs, some of which were run by Connections Academy and K12 Inc., half left the schools within a year. They produced three times as many dropouts as they did graduates, according to the 10-month investigation.
Despite the problems, virtual schools have exploded in the past five years, becoming the fastest-growing alternative to traditional schools in the country. They operate in nearly 30 states with enrollments reaching 300,000, Glass said.
Winckler, a Democrat, requested test scores from the Iowa Department of Education for one of the online schools, which had already taken the state’s standardized test. She was told by state officials that “it would be premature to release the scores,” she said.
“Absent that data, there are a lot of red flags,” Winckler told Iowa Watchdog.
The state has yet to receive test scores and analyze them, said Jason Glass, director of the Iowa Department of Education. Because public funding is flowing to the schools and companies that run them they will still be on the hook for producing results, he said.
“We are holding these schools to the same standards as any school in the state of Iowa,” Jason Glass said.
Winckler criticized the department, saying officials’ report to lawmakers regarding the schools was misleading. In it, Jason Glass said the state surveyed 100 percent of students enrolled at the schools. However, just 302 students were asked to complete the survey. Only about 50 percent responded.
“That statement is misleading,” Winckler said. “It’s not due diligence
Williamson, with the department of education, said state officials did not “purposefully leave out the response rate” or try to mislead lawmakers and the public. The department would be happy to amend the report.
The schools have two more years to show results. If they fail to do so, lawmakers could opt to pull the plug on them, according to legislation passed last year.
“We couldn’t kill it, but we built a pretty good barrier around it,” said Sen. Herman Quirmbach, the Democratic chair of the Senate Education Committee. He said once the three-year contracts with the companies are up, he hopes “the whole thing will go away.”
Contact Tushar Rae at firstname.lastname@example.org.