Click here to listen to the KUNC public radio report on Grace Hood’s COVA investigation.
Enrollment for kids of all ages is booming at Colorado’s 22 full-time multi-district online schools. This year, about $30 million in taxpayer money is expected to go to the largest, Colorado Virtual Academy. The school is free and promotes a more individualized approach to coursework and virtual interaction with Colorado teachers.
But with an estimated 77 cents of every taxpayer dollar the school receives going to its for-profit management company, some former teachers say they were unable live up to the school’s promises. The news comes as Colorado legislators are preparing to introduce a bill that would increase accountability for the quickly expanding online programs.
Online schooling is an attractive option for parents and students because schedules are flexible and kids can work from home. It’s those same qualities that attracted Casey Longo to Colorado Virtual Academy. The middle school English teacher was there for five years until the spring of 2011 when her contract wasn’t renewed. She says she felt overwhelmed by crushing workloads the first semester of many school years, which made it nearly impossible to give individualized attention to kids having problems.
“What I really need to do is get them on the phone, open my computer, open their computer and walk them through it,” she says. “That would take an hour plus. You can’t do that with 250 students. You can’t.”
A five-month investigation by KUNC shows Longo wasn’t alone. Records confirm workloads for middle school English teachers as high as 240 students during the first semester of the 2010-2011 school year and equally large numbers for some high school instructors. Other former teachers speaking off the record reported similar challenges.
That’s despite support from advisors and counselors, who worked with teachers.
Colorado Virtual Academy Board Member Randy DeHoff calls the data misleading because it represents the beginning of the year before school officials have had a chance to respond to changes in student enrollment.
“I don’t think you can really draw any conclusions that mean anything from just looking at that one number,” says DeHoff, who served on the Colorado Board of Education for 12 years.
Records show that Colorado Virtual Academy added two high school English teachers second semester. But that happened after student counts had dropped by more than 300.
“We’re not getting a consistent message from the teachers that they’re overwhelmed,” he says.
According to Longo and others, the heart of the problem stems from who manages the school.
Colorado Virtual Academy — which is taxpayer funded — is run by the education management organization (EMO), Virginia-based K12 Inc. It’s a publicly traded, for-profit company that manages 29 virtual public schools across the country. It oversees everything from marketing to teacher staffing at the schools. Several Colorado school districts also contract with K12 Inc. for online curriculum. Last May, Insight School of Colorado came under K12 Inc. management after the company purchased Insight’s parent company, Kaplan, Inc.
Mary Gifford, regional vice president of K12 Inc., says that she and other Colorado Virtual Academy administrators continually monitor enrollments and withdrawals to ensure proper staffing.
“The goal has always been to make sure that kids are ready to learn and teachers are ready to teach on day one,” she says.
However, these questions about staffing aren’t unique to Colorado. Complaints over teacher turnover and pay have contributed to a unionization battle in Pennsylvania at Agora Cyber Charter School. And K12 Inc.’s own shareholders have filed suit, alleging it provided misleading information about student-to-teacher ratios and other practices. The complaint references a New York Times exposé published last December. K12 Inc. has vigorously disputed those claims.
But former teacher Casey Longo questions the bottom line.
“If a teacher has 300 students instead of 150, it’s one less teacher that they have to pay,” she says. “It’s an extra $30,000 that goes into the pocket of K12, which is a corporation.”
According to an open records request, nearly 75 percent of Colorado Virtual Academy teachers make less than $35,000. And only four are at or above the state average of $49,000. These amounts do not include bonuses or merit pay. KUNC was denied access to the salaries of school administrators. That’s because administrators are employees of K12 Inc., and the school said the records were not in their possession.
A $1.3 Million Question
During the course of this investigation, KUNC came across an apparent discrepancy in the school’s audited financial records. Last school year when Longo and others complained about workloads, Colorado Virtual Academy reported spending an extra $1.3 million dollars on instructional expenses (pg. 19 – PDF) related to “increased teaching and support staff to support higher student attendance and achievement.” The note explains that instructional expenses include “activities dealing directly with the interactions between teaching staff and students.”
Officials responded to a records request and numerous emails, but never directly answered KUNC’s questions about specific increases in “staff”. Colorado Virtual Academy Head of School Heidi Heineke-Magri spoke with KUNC via telephone about the expenses, but declined to speak on the record.
According to previous correspondence, the extra money was connected to unfunded students who came in after a statewide count that had already determined public funding. In the past, Heineke-Magri explained in an email that Colorado Virtual Academy has outsourced some teaching for these students to “licensed contractors” to not impact workloads for teachers like Casey Longo.
But if taxpayer money was used for something as innocuous as unfunded students, why was the school so reluctant to provide details?
The Road Ahead
Questions like these come at a critical juncture for the more than 10-year-old Colorado Virtual Academy, which is seeking state renewal for its charter status this fall. Its state academic rating is “priority improvement,” which is the third lowest out of four rankings.
“We know the most important component of a quality education whether it’s face-to-face brick-and-mortar traditional school or online school is the quality of the teacher,” says Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the advocacy organization International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).
When it comes to gauging teacher staffing, Patrick explains that access to a high-quality teacher is more important than specific ratios. That’s because she says instructional models at online schools are so different. In addition to teachers, the COVA model relies on parents to serve as learning coaches for students.
“Even if you have different staffing models, it should be about the student learning,” she says.
K12 Inc. has been working to improve student learning at Colorado Virtual Academy by spending more than $1 million of its own money on initiatives. This includes changing their middle school model, hiring eight additional advisors — who may not have teaching credentials — to work alongside middle school instructors.
Since the state leaves operational decisions up to individual charter schools, it’s ultimately up to Colorado Virtual Academy board members like Randy DeHoff to determine if the taxpayer money is being used in the best interest of students.
“We look at the money that is going to K12 — not just when we approve the budget — but at every board meeting. Here’s what’s going out, here’s what we’re getting for it,” he says. “We’re constantly asking are we getting our money’s worth?”
Colorado Virtual Academy received nearly $30 million in state funding last year. $22.7 million went to its management company K12 Inc. Their contract agreement ends in 2018.
KUNC reporter Grace Hood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.