published Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

Gov. Bill Haslam moves to cap online school enrollment

Gov. Bill Haslam works the crowd and talks with supporters after delivering a speech at the University of Memphis' University Center regarding his proposed 2013-14 state budget.
Gov. Bill Haslam works the crowd and talks with supporters after delivering a speech at the University of Memphis' University Center regarding his proposed 2013-14 state budget.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam is moving to rein in enrollment at Union County's rapidly growing online virtual public school after students at the privately operated academy performed poorly on state achievement scores last year.

Haslam's bill caps student enrollment at the Tennessee Virtual Academy at 5,000. The school accepts students from across the state and now has 3,200 K-8 students after an initial enrollment of 1,800 in the 2011-12 academic year.

The academy is run by the for-profit company K12 Inc. under contract with Union County public schools. That came after a heavy lobbying blitz by company lobbyists who persuaded the Republican-controlled General Assembly to let for-profit companies operate online schools under contract with public school systems.

K12 Inc., which has come under fire on its operations in some states, now faces blow back in Tennessee after results of the academy's first-year results in the 2011-12 academic year were released last summer.

The school narrowly averted falling into the lowest 10 percent of schools on student performance. Only 16.4 percent of students score as proficient or advance on state tests. Students did better in reading with 39.3 percent of them rated proficient or better.

The scores prompted Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman to tell the Chattanooga Times Free Press last fall that what was happening was "unacceptable."

Haslam's legislation would apply to the Tennessee Virtual Academy and any other online schools that come down the path. House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, who is carrying the administration's package of bills, said Tuesday he had not been fully briefed on the measure.

Huffman spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier said in an email, "This bill is meant to enhance the accountability for virtual schools, and to base their future growth on demonstrated performance.

"This is not about K12; this is a matter of learning from the first year of implementation of the Virtual Schools Act and making improvements with a focus on student achievement," she said.

The bill restricts new operators of online schools to no more than 1,500 students. After students demonstrate they are indeed learning through state achievement tests, they can enroll no more than 5,000. That cap also applies to K12 Inc.'s operation, Gauthier confirmed.

Another provision in the bill restricts a county online school's ability to accept students from outside the local district.

That initially would not apply to K12 Inc.'s current student population in Union County. But Gauthier confirmed that in the future it would apply to new students.

After looking at an email description of the bill provided by a Times Free Press reporter, K12 Inc.'s vice president of public affairs, Jeff Kwitowski, said "arbitrary student enrollment caps negatively impact children and parents the most."

"Digital learning can provide students equal access and opportunity regardless of where they live, unless policymakers choose to erect new barriers on families," Kwitowski said.

The provisions might cause trouble for K12 Inc.'s Tennessee business model. The publicly traded company was projecting large enrollment increases in coming years. In contracting with relatively impoverished Union County, the school receives the highest amount of state funding on a per-pupil basis in Tennessee. Ninety-two percent of that goes to K12 Inc.

Earlier Tuesday, the Tennessee Virtual Academy's head, Josh Williams, and K12 Inc. officials came under fire in the House Education Committee over the students' achievement scores.

"We've done a lot over the last five years in education reform in this state, and this is a setback," Rep. Joe Pitts, D-Clarksville, told them. "I would just admonish you to pay attention."

Williams earlier said the school is taking special measures to improve scores. He noted that while students as a whole fared poorly on math, they performed much better on reading and writing testing.

"We're going to take this seriously," he said. "We are very concerned and we're going to raise those scores."

Many of the academy's students came into the school after it started, Williams said. Sixty-five percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunch programs, an indicator of poverty that educators say can impact students' readiness to learn. Another 8 percent are special education students.

About half had not previously attended a public school, and many of those are home schooled, he said.

Contact staff writer 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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