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Online charter outsourced student essays

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Idaho’s largest virtual charter school, with approximately 3,500 students, has outsourced student essays to India for review in the grading process.

The revelation that K12 Inc., the world’s largest online charter school provider, sent thousands of student essays overseas was revealed back in 2008 by Arizona blogger David Safier.[i]  But it wasn’t until September 2013 that K12 verified at least one Idaho charter school was also involved.  After being pressed, K12 admitted that Idaho Virtual Academy (IDVA), Idaho’s largest virtual school and operated by K12 Inc., had outsourced student essays.

“This was a pilot program offered by K12 to give teachers additional support,” said K12 spokesperson Jeff Kwitowski in an email.  “Reviewers provided initial feedback, but teachers assigned grades.  Teachers could use the service at their discretion.  It was used by some schools, including IDVA, until the pilot was discontinued.”[ii]

Records I have obtained indicate that between August and December 2007 IDVA outsourced over 3,000 essays to India.[iii]  A Sept. 10, 2008, Education Week article reveals K12 eventually settled into a business relationship with TutorVista, a tutoring service in Bangalore, India.[iv]  In so doing, IDVA may have violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) which protects student work and private information.[v]

K12’s “pilot” project highlights an important issue within for-profit charter schools:  adequate oversight.  Private companies like K12 are not subject to open meetings laws or public records requests.[vi]  Ironically, K12’s website claims, “We must foster a culture of professionalism, service, transparency, accountability….”[vii]  Difficult to hold a company’s board of directors, CEO’s and shareholders to this standard when their business practices, products and services are considered “proprietary.”[viii]  There is no reason to believe the “pilot” project would have ever been discontinued had an investigator not unearthed the practice and dragged it into the sunlight of parental scrutiny.[ix]  The IRS is also investigating.[x]

There’s more.  IDVA’s 2013 Annual Update also reveals that, “There appears to be potential for conflicts of interest to result from IDVA’s administration and management staff being K12 employees.”[xi]  And, in a 2012 study by Western Michigan University, 27% of K12’s schools in 2010-11 reported making adequately yearly progress, compared to 52% for brick-and-mortar schools.[xii]  Perhaps K12, which donated 44K to Superintendent Tom Luna’s 2010 campaign,[xiii] shouldn’t also get transportation costs for “bring(ing) the school to the children.”[xiv]

Kase Capital hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson, also co-founder of Democrats for Education Reform, eviscerates K12’s business practices.  Tilson reminds us that online schools are good for children who need flexible schedules, or who have highly involved parents, but they are not for everyone.  He exposes K12’s aggressive recruiting tactics to enroll at-risk and special education students, often from poor, single-parent households where the parent has little time to be the requisite “parent coach.”[xv]

Jeff Shaw, former Head of School of K-12-run Ohio Virtual Academy told Tilson, “After the IPO, I got discouraged because the company’s priority seemed to shift from academics to growth….  Eventually, it seemed as though K12’s enrollment strategy was to cast a wide net into the sea of school choice and keep whatever they caught regardless if the catch was appropriate for virtual learning or not.”[xvi]

One former English teacher from Pennsylvania’s Agora Cyber Charter School (2010-12) said of K12, “There was no teacher-to-student ratio.  When I started, I was assigned 300 students, which was very, very overwhelming. I would try to read each of the essays students turned in … but I was really struggling with that. I couldn’t keep up. I was told to skim over the papers and grade with a rubric.”[xvii]

K12 CEO Ron Packard says, “It’s just K12’s culture.”[xviii]

1 Safier, David. (2012, February 20). “Setting the record straight about K12 Inc. outsourcing student essays to India.” BlogforArizona. Retrieved from http://www.blogforarizona.com/blog/2012/02/setting-the-record-straight-about-k12-inc-outsourcing-student-essays-to-india.html

[ii] Kwitkowski, Jeff. (2013, September 20). Personal email.

[iii] Private K12 documents.

[iv] Trotter, Andrew. (2008, September 10).  “K12 Inc. Scraps India Outsourcing.” Education Week.  Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2008/09/10/03outsource.h28.html

[v] U.S. Department of Education. (2013, September 27).  “Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).”  Ed.Gov.  Retrieved from http://www.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/index.html

[vi] Idaho Public Television.  “Open Idaho.”  Retrieved from http://idahoptv.org/dialogue/openidaho/help.cfm

[vii] Davis, Nate.  (2013, March 4).  “An Open Letter from Nate Davis, Executive Chairman, K12 Inc.”  Retrieved from http://www.k12.com/nate-davis-open-letter#.UkZcCoZvPB8

[viii] Parker, Christina L & Jeff Kwitowski.  (2013, August 29).  “News Release: K12 Inc. Reports Full Fiscal Year 2013 Results.”  Retrieved from http://investors.k12.com/phoenix.zhtml?c=214389&p=irol-newsArticle&id=1850567

[ix] Safier, David.  (2008, August 7).  “AZ Online Charter School Outsources Education.”  BlogforArizona.  Retrieved from http://arizona.typepad.com/blog/2008/08/az-online-chart.html

[x] Hall, Eric & H. Mahaffey.  (2012, June 18).  “Increased Scrutiny of Charter Schools Operated by For-Profit Management Companies.”  Lewis Roca RothGerber Law.  Retrieved from http://www.lrrlaw.com/increased-irs-scrutiny-of-charter-schools-operated-by-for-profit-management-companies-06-18-2012/#.UkZv8oZvPB8

[xi] Idaho Public Charter School Commission.  (2013, April 11).  “IDVA Annual Update.”  Retrieved from http://chartercommission.idaho.gov/meetings/archive/2013/04_11_13/D6%20IDVA%20Update.pdf

[xii] Miron, Gary & Jessica L. Urschel.  (2012, July).  “A Study of Student Characteristics, School Finance and School Performance in Schools Operated by K12 Inc.”  National Education Policy Center.  Retrieved from http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/nepc-rb-k12-miron.pdf

[xiii] Popkey, Dan.  (2012, February 2).  “Luna’s friend, K12 CEO Ron Packard, faces class-action suit alleging misstatesments on student performance.”  Idaho Statesman Blogs.  Retrieved from http://voices.idahostatesman.com/2012/02/02/idahopolitics/lunas_friend_k12_ceo_ron_packard_faces_classaction_shareholder_l

[xiv] Woodard, Colin.  (2012, September 2).  “Virtual Schools Have Questionable Records.”  Morning Sentinel.  Retrieved from http://www.onlinesentinel.com/news/questionable-record_2012-09-01.html

[xv] Tilson, Whitney.  (2013, September 22).  “An Analysis of K12 and Why It Is My Largest Short Position.”  Seeking Alpha.  Retrieved from http://seekingalpha.com/article/1707192-an-analysis-of-k12-and-why-it-is-my-largest-short-position?source=email_rt_article_readmore

[xvi] ibid

[xvii] ibid

[xviii] Tilson, Whitney.  (2013, September 17).  Powerpoint, slide number 27.  Presentation given at 9th Annual Spring Value Investing Congress.  Retrieved from http://www.tilsonfunds.com/K12-Tilson-9-17-13.pdf



Travis Manning

Travis Manning is Executive Director of the Common Sense Democracy Foundation of Idaho. He is a high school English teacher, parent of three children and Scoutmaster.

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