For-profit partnerships fuel oversight concerns at virtual schools

Idaho has for decades spent millions of dollars to support low-performing virtual schools, which funnel money to for-profit, out-of-state companies for digital curricula.

All but one of Idaho’s 16 online schools are consistently among the state’s lowest performing schools. And in 2016-17, Idaho’s publicly funded virtual schools paid well in excess of $10 million to companies that provide digital coursework to nearly 6,000 online learners.

The Idaho Public Charter School Commission (PCSC) recently sanctioned six virtual schools for their low performance. The low marks have caught the attention of key leaders. State superintendent Sherri Ybarra pointed out that virtual and alternative high schools contribute to Idaho’s below-average graduation rate.

House Education Committee member Rep. Sally Toone worries that the for-profit partnerships hinder proper school oversight.

“It’s absolutely a concern for me,” said Toone, who questions how Idaho’s virtual schools can properly evaluate their teachers.

Coinciding with Toone’s concerns, a recent federal report outlines a number of significant oversight issues at one of Idaho’s largest virtual schools. Meanwhile, news reports in other states reveal the questionable pasts of two digital curriculum providers now partnered with two other large virtual schools in Idaho.

Despite these reports, online educators defend the for-profit partnerships and the value of digital learning, arguing that Idaho’s virtual schools provide a critical alternative for students who might not thrive in a traditional K-12 setting.

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Virtual vendors with questionable pasts get big payouts from Idaho

Idaho’s largest virtual charter school, 1,850-student Idaho Virtual Academy (IDVA), has nursed a longtime partnership with K12 Inc., a Virginia-based for-profit and one of the nation’s wealthiest digital curriculum providers.

Like other digital schools across the country, IDVA has paid K12 Inc. tens of millions of dollars over the last decade for online curriculum. From August 2016 to July 2017, IDVA’s payments to K12 Inc. add up to some $5.6 million, according to the school’s expense reports. IDVA’s 2016-17 budget was roughly $11.6 million.

The state’s second- and third-largest virtual schools have likewise entered into seven-figure contracts with for-profit curriculum providers:

  • Inspire Connections Academy (Inspire) enrolls roughly 1,000 students and paid almost $3.6 million to Connections Learning from August 2016 to July 2017, according to school expense reports. Connections Learning is curriculum giant Pearson‘s online and blended-learning division, headquartered in Baltimore.
  • Idaho Home Learning Academy (IHLA) enrolls more than 560 students and paid more than $533,000 to Utah-based curriculum providers Harmony and TechTrep in 2016-17. A 2017 Idaho Ed News investigation revealed that IDHA’s unprecedented influx of online learners last year put Harmony on track to receive well over $1 million in state funds in 2017-18.

All three of the state’s largest digital curriculum providers have come under scrutiny over business and educational practices.

  • IDVA’s K12 Inc. has been the subject of numerous lawsuits and investigations over lack of oversight and claims that it puts profits above students. In 2016, San Jose, Calif.-based Mercury News published a two-part investigative series on the company’s purported exploitation of funds tied to California virtual charters and state charity laws.
  • IHLA’s Harmony likewise came under fire in Utah in 2014, after the Salt Lake Tribune revealed a state audit showed lax management of the company’s distance-learning programs in two charter schools. Both schools eventually severed ties with Harmony, with one local trustee calling it a “predatory company.”
  • A 2017 federal audit revealed a number of “significant” past oversight issues stemming from Inspire’s partnership with Connections Learning. (More on this in a moment.)

The payouts have also fueled concerns about who else profits from the partnerships. In 2011, Albertson’s supermarket heir Joseph B. Scott caught heat after the Associated Press reported on more than $15 million brought in by his investment company, Alscott Inc., for selling part of its stake in K12 Inc. Scott’s tax-exempt family foundation, the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, had promoted K12 Inc. by giving Idaho schools grants to contract with the company.

Virtual students perform below standards and state averages

Despite the large investments, these large virtual schools struggle academically. Inspire and IDVA are among six of seven virtual charter schools to incur academic sanctions from the PCSC due to low test scores and graduation rates.

IHLA operates under the Oneida School District and is not susceptible to PCSC sanctions, though the school’s standardized test scores are also low. Just 26 percent of IHLA’s third- through eighth-graders reached proficiency on the math portion of Idaho’s standardized test in 2016-17, well below the state average of 43 percent. The school’s English language arts scores trailed the state average by more than 7 percentage points.

Only 560-student Idaho Distance Education Academy, of the White Pine School District, outperformed state averages on the ISAT and SAT in 2016-17. School leaders attribute this success largely to the development of its own digital curriculum, instead of coursework purchased from vendors.

“We don’t know exactly what the other schools are doing, but (our curriculum is) very individualized for our students,” said IDEA assistance principal Velvet Gutridge.

Inspire illustrates how oversight can get lost in virtual schools

Inspire’s partnership with Connections Learning has exposed a number of in-state oversight issues. A 2017 federal report obtained by Idaho Ed News details a number of  “significant” oversight issues at the school during the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years, including:

  • Falsified attendance reports. 
  • Unqualified teachers.
  • Inadequate documentation of students with disabilities. 
  • Lax management of federal Title I funds. 

The 2017 federal report also details a number of state-imposed “corrective measures” at Inspire, including “changes to policies, procedures, documentation, and technical assistance” handed down by the State Department of Education.

Ybarra last year assured federal auditors that these measures had corrected issues at Inspire.

“Inspire is an entirely different school than it was in July 2013,” Ybarra wrote in a followup report to the feds.

The 2017 Inspire report coincides with a number of broader concerns expressed by Toone, including conflicts of interest stemming from partnerships with for-profit curriculum providers.

“It is about profit for these companies,” said Toone, D-Gooding. “That’s their bottom line.”

Leaders are mixed over the value of virtual schools

Virtual schools’ teachers often work from home, which poses an oversight challenge, Toone said. Idaho requires at least two teacher observations annually, using the Charlotte Danielson framework. But this model aligns mostly with a traditional brick-and-mortar setting. Danielson’s metrics include managing student behavior and engaging students in learning — difficult tasks to perform if teachers don’t work face-to-face with students.

“I’m not sure that (teacher) accountability is in our virtual schools,” Toone said.

Yet Kelly Edginton, IDVA’s head administrator, attributes her school’s low performance less to oversight challenges and more to student demographics.

“We consistently serve a higher number of (at-risk) students,” Edginton said.

Virtual schools frequently serve suspended or pregnant teens; students who are bullied or who learn at varying rates; students pursuing early careers in sports, music or the arts; or students more likely to change schools regularly.

The PCSC, which oversees most of Idaho’s virtual schools, acknowledged in its 2017 annual report that it is working to better understand “to what extent factors such as student mobility and off-cohort enrollment impact virtual school populations.” However, PCSC director Tamara Baysinger in February acknowledged that most of the schools aren’t not classified as alternative or “second-chance” schools.

Toone worries that advertisements touting virtual schools’ increased flexibility lure families that do not fully understand the challenges of online learning. She’s “not a fan” of seeing Idaho tax dollars support advertising, but said schools should be able to spend their money in ways they believe are most beneficial to their students.

Edginton agreed that schools need the flexibility to purchase curriculum that works for them and pointed out that Idaho’s traditional schools also funnel money to for-profit companies for curriculum each year. 

“We aren’t the only ones doing that,” Edginton said.

Disclaimer: Idaho Education News is funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation.

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