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. 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.”

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

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.

Ironically, K12’s website claims, “We must foster a culture of professionalism, service, transparency, accountability….” Difficult to hold a company’s board of directors, CEOs and shareholders to this standard when their business practices, products and services are considered “proprietary.”

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. The IRS is also investigating.

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.”

And in a 2012 study by Western Michigan University, 27 percent of K12’s schools in 2010-11 reported making adequately yearly progress, compared to 52 percent for brick-and-mortar schools.

Perhaps K12, which donated to Superintendent Tom Luna’s 2010 campaign, shouldn’t also get transportation costs for “bring(ing) the school to the children.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

K12 CEO Ron Packard says “It’s just K12’s culture.”

* Travis Manning is Executive Director of The Common Sense Democracy Foundation of Idaho and can be reached at manning_travis@hotmail.com.

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