published Saturday, August 10th, 2013

New K12 Inc. schools stall for now amid Tennessee officials' questions

Efforts this year by the nation's largest for-profit online education company to open a second and third statewide virtual school under contract with Campbell County schools are a no-go with the state at least for now.

The schools, which publicly traded K12 Inc. won a contract with the school district to operate, was scheduled to start Friday, the district's first day of school.

But state officials, still grappling with low first-year student performance at K12 Inc.'s controversial Tennessee Virtual School operation in Union County, late last month refused to approve the latest venture.

In a July 30 letter to Campbell County school officials, state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman's office said the district failed to provide key details officials need to assess its application for K12 Inc. to run the proposed schools and receive taxpayer funding.

Instead, according to a copy of the application, school officials just checked off various boxes on a standard state form and attached a copy of what the state characterizes as a K12 Inc. company "brochure."

Unaddressed were issues like how the district would monitor student attendance, enforce compulsory attendance laws, provide details on how many teachers there would be, state the length of the school day and a dozen other details.

That's not good enough, wrote Deputy Education Commissioner Kathleen Airhart in a letter to Campbell County schools. The questions need to be answered, she said.

"We remain concerned about your ability to successfully open and operate this school for the 2013-2014 school year," Airport said in her letter. "Please note that until you have received approval, the proposed school is not eligible to receive public funds for enrolled students."

School Director Donnie Poston this week did not respond to repeated Times Free Press requests for an interview about the K12 Inc. contract, the state's refusal to approve the operation and how or if officials plan to proceed.

Steve Hill, a consultant who has been working with Campbell County Mayor William Baird on getting K12 Inc. into the county, voiced frustration with delays.

"We had sent them [state] the information they'd requested. Then they came back with requests for additional information -- which we sent that to them and then they came back with additional information. We're attempting to send that," Hill said.

"It's beginning to look a little from a lay person from the outside looking in that some of the questions are almost getting to be ridiculous," he added.

In an email earlier this week, K12 Inc. spokesman Jeff Kwitowski said, "There is not yet a completed services agreement with the county. We are still in contract discussions."

Kwitowski said the school board awarded a request-for-proposal bid to K12 Inc. in June and "voted to enter into discussions on a services agreement" as the system's vendor.

The schools would open next year, Kwitowski said. But the school district had been promoting on its website that the grades K-8 Tennessee Cyber Academy and the Tennessee Cyber Academy High School would open in August.

"This exciting online option is free to Tennessee public school students. Enroll now to secure one of the limited seats available," it urged.

But the district's website also advised parents to enroll their children in their appropriate local school pending state approval.

K12 Inc. has defended first-year students' results at the grade K-8 Tennessee Virtual Academy in Union County, saying many enrolled from across the state after the school year began. Officials also contend a high percentage of enrolled students had deficient records. K12 Inc. says its innovative computer approach leads to good results.

Meanwhile, a Campbell County school official said "several hundred" students had sought to apply to the two new schools.

Hill, a public relations executive who helped Baird with a strategic plan to boost economic development in the rural, low-income county, said the proposal grew out of the mayor's effort to implement an after-school program for failing students as well as another program to help dropouts.

But Hill, who since has retired, noted he is volunteering his help. He said Baird and he approached K12 Inc. officials, who offered to help with the program.

The idea for the schools emerged with Baird approaching the school board and the school director.

"This was a way to fund $200,000 for after school and dropouts we never could have pursued," Hill said.

The school board approved it with just one no vote, he said.

K12 Inc. successfully lobbied the GOP-led Legislature two years ago to let for-profit companies run online schools.

After passage, the company went to Union County, a rural, poor county that receives a higher share of state funding than most other systems. A contract was struck for K12 Inc. to create and run the Tennessee Virtual Academy, which allows any student from across the state to enroll.

But Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman was less than impressed by the school's first year results on student progress as measured by state test scores. Students scored in the bottom 11 percent among students statewide in the 2011-12 academic year.

Huffman called that "unacceptable." And he and Republican Gov. Bill Haslam proposed legislation to crack down with an enrollment cap for virtual schools whose performances are not up to par.

K12 Inc.'s allies in the Legislature watered it down.

Campbell County School Board member Eugene Lawson said Baird and Hill came to the board and "were trying to sell us on the idea of the virtual school."

But Lawson, who taught school for some four decades, said he looked into Union County's school.

"Their test scores were real low and they didn't seem to be measuring up and just thinking it over I just didn't think it was a good idea," said Lawson, the lone no vote.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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