In their rush to privatize public education in Tennessee, the Governor and the legislature enacted legislation in 2011 authorizing the Tennesee Virtual Academy, an online charter school run by K12 Inc.
K12 is a for-profit corporation started by Michael and Lloyd Milken. It is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. It earns millions for its owners but has received bad reviews in the New York Times and the Washington Post. The National Education Policy Center wrote a devastating critique of its academic results, as did CREDO in a report about Pennsylvania. In that state, virtual charter schools do worse than either public schools or brick-and-mortar charter schools.
Nonetheless, Tennessee wanted to be in the vanguard of the privatization movement. K12 partnered with Union County public schools, which collect 4% of K12’s proceeds. K12 pockets the other 96%, which is drawn from public schools across the state. The K12 virtual school is one of the lowest performing schools in the state, but Commissioner Kevin Huffman lacks the grit to shut it down. Despite its poor results, enrollment continues to grow. The company uses public dollars for recruiting, marketing, and advertising, and parents are persuaded by the sales pitch and the free computer to try homeschooling. Unfortunately, students often lack the motivation to stick with the program, and many drop out and return to their local public school, minus the state tuition grant.
Instead of shutting the school down, after three years of poor results, Commissioner Huffman announced that he would not permit the next entering class of 626 students to enroll. If the TVA were a public school, it would have its doors nailed shut. But Huffman decided to give TVA more time and to ignore its dismal results.
In a pattern that is typical for virtual charter schools, the students at the TVA have low test scores and high attrition. When the students return to their public schools, they have low proficiency. Meanwhile, their home district loses money, and K12’s bottom line grows.
Meanwhile a Washington-based organization that advocates for school choice blasted Huffman. The Center for Educational Reform said:
“The Center for Education Reform strongly condemns the recent directive by the Tennessee Education Commissioner to un-enroll 626 students from the Tennessee Virtual Academy (TNVA), denying them their school choice rights.
“It’s an outrage that these 626 legally enrolled students are now being forcefully turned away, just two weeks before the start of the school year,” said Kara Kerwin, president of The Center for Education Reform. “This represents an unreasonable attempt by Commissioner Huffman to virtually block the schoolhouse door.”
To CER, school choice is far more important than school quality. No matter how low the test scores or the graduation rate, no matter how high the attrition rate, CER will fight for students’ right to choose low-quality schools. How this is supposed to improve U.S. education is a mystery.
Except for a small number of students with compelling reasons to stay home instead of going to school, virtual charter schools are a waste of public funds.