As readers of this blog know, I am not in the Kevin Huffman fan club. Unlike him, I don’t believe in free market solutions to education, nor do I care for the teacher evaluations that have been pioneered and continued in Tennessee over the past 20 years (without, be it noted, vaulting Tennessee to the top of the nation).


But I am a fan of this terrific article by Kevin Huffman. Huffman tells the story, in graphic detail, about how he tried to close down the lowest performing school in the state and got outsmarted year after year by the lobbyists for the national corporation that owns the Tennessee Virtual Academy: K12, Inc. That corporation, launched by Michael and Lowell Milken, is the biggest purveyor of online education; it operates for profit. It is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The last time I checked, the CEO was paid $5 million a year. K12 has been criticized repeatedly in studies of its performance but it shrugs off evaluations and keeps going. Recently, CREDO released a study that concluded that students in online charter schools lost ground: 72 days in reading, and 180 days in math. That is, a student who studied math for a year lost the equivalent of a full year of instruction, i.e., learned nothing.


Huffman notes that the school ranked dead last in the state in its first year. It showed no gains or tiny gains in every succeeding year. He tried to close it but each time was outfoxed by the lobbyists. He showed them the data, they said it wasn’t true. He offered to give them suggestions about how to improve their performance, but K12 sent lobbyists to meet with him, not educators.


Despite his attempts to close the school, it was still in operation when he left office. He reached the conclusion that for-profits are a bad fit in the school marketplace; we agree. If the charter industry is ever to clean up its house, it must distance itself from the for-profit corporations that give charters a bad name.


Huffman concludes:


This past summer, the state released the school results from the 2014-15 school year. The Tennessee Virtual Academy earned a Level 1 in growth for the fourth year in a row. It clocked in at #1312 out of 1368 elementary and middle schools in the state. It is no longer the most improved lousy school in Tennessee. It is just plain lousy. It is, over a four-year time, arguably the worst school in Tennessee.
K12 Inc. lives on in Tennessee. The Tennessee Virtual Academy opened its online doors again in August. State officials tell me that they aren’t thinking about other legal steps. After all, if and when the school fails again this year, they will close it down.
I will believe it when I see it.


The K12 saga raises a lot of difficult questions for me. Is it possible for a for-profit company to run schools? Our very best charters all over the country are non-profits, and I see little evidence of for-profits succeeding in the school management business. I may be platform-agnostic, but the data is telling a compelling story on this one.
How do we encourage innovation while still holding the bar on quality? The virtual school concept almost certainly has a place in the future of American education. But how long should an “innovative” school be allowed to fail?
What is the responsibility of the state as a regulatory enterprise, even in a choice environment? None of the parents signing up for TNVA were forced into the school — it is a school of choice.
And yet, the “marketplace” fails when we are not able to ensure that parents know that the school they are choosing has a running track record of failure. Clearly, there is a critical regulatory role, and we cannot simply assume that an unfettered choice environment will automatically lead to good outcomes.
In theory, K12, Inc’s stock should be hammered by its terrible performance in Tennessee, but it’s actually up in 2015. And why wouldn’t it be? The corporate shareholders aren’t looking for student results — they are looking for K12 to expand and grow and add more students.
Nobody asks me for stock advice, but I say: Buy! Buy K12 Inc.! It is the rarest of breeds — a company utterly impervious to failure. It fails again and again, and yet it lives and breathes!
No doubt, I will have ample opportunity to talk about this with their lobbyists at my next education conference.