Interest Grows in ‘Virtual’ Schools

State aid follows students to online-learning district

By Jane Roberts
Posted July 17, 2011 at midnight

Denita Alhammadi has taken her son out of the Memphis City Schools and enrolled him in Tennessee Virtual Academy, a new online school that makes home the classroom and puts parents in charge.

State tax dollars for her son’s education will now flow 414 miles east of Memphis to Union County Public Schools, the tiny district in East Tennessee acting as fiscal agent for K12 Inc., the largest for-profit purveyor of online education in the nation.

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“The reason I pulled him of Memphis City Schools is because he had to deal with bullying,” Alhammadi said after an informational meeting K12 hosted last week in Memphis.

It was one of a dozen sessions K12 is holding across the state to line up students for the new venture, created after a controversial new law passed by
the state legislature in its closing hours May 21 went into effect on July 1.

K12 hired three of Nashville’s top lobbyists to push for the bill. Online education programs have operated in Tennessee for years, but the bill opened the
door for school districts to establish entire virtual schools, open to students from anywhere in the state and to contract with for-profit companies to
run them.

Most of the bill, which decrees that state education funding follows the child, is identical to a model act drafted by the corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council, a membership organization of conservative state legislators from across the country.

It was approved mostly along party-line votes, with the new Republican majority in favor. Democrats and some Republicans questioned the funding, especially if large numbers of home-schooled students enroll and suddenly obligate state dollars not currently being paid. Several of the parents who attended K12 meetings in Memphis and Nashville said they currently home-school their children.

That will amount to at least $5,387 in state tax dollars for every student enrolled in the program, according to the state Department of Education. A legislative fiscal analysis concluded there was no way to determine how many students would enroll.

For Alhammadi, the last straw was when Memphis school leaders classified her son “ADHD,” attention deficit hyperactive disorder.

“My son is an advanced learner. Of course he’s going to be bored if he finishes way ahead of everyone else and has to just sit there.”

She was among about 40 parents who showed up at the Orange Mound Community Center for the K12 meeting. Most stayed the entire two hours, learning about the boxes and boxes of taxpayer-funded books and supplies that will be delivered to their homes — including computers and high-speed Internet access for those who qualify — and the relative ease in which they can take charge of their children’s learning.

“We have principals and teachers on the ground,” said Heidi Higgins, K12’s sales rep in Tennessee. “We will provide the lessons, all the books, materials and supplies you can ever imagine.

“The tools are built into a system set up on a daily or weekly basis so you’ll know where to begin and exactly what to do,” she said, emphasizing that parents who “can turn on a computer and open up a browser” should have no trouble.

And she said, “we are not going to penalize a child for being swift” and buzzing through a lesson. Conversely, a child that needs to slow down, she said,
will be right at home with K12.

“Of course, you have already paid for this. This is a visible sign of your tax dollars at work,” she said.

Angela Muhammad, also a Memphis parent, is on the verge of signing up. What will seal the deal for her is if she can be assured that her children be allowed to skip the grades she says they have already mastered.

“This is exactly what I want for my children,” Muhammad said. She believes a parent is the child’s best teacher, even if they need special education services, “because no one knows that child better.”

She also likes the idea that K12 lets her add moral and religious “add-ons” to the lessons and gives her more control over who influences her children.

Wayne Goforth, director of the Union County school system, isn’t surprised at the interest. “I can tell you, from the figures I have seen, that there is
a very, very big need in state of Tennessee for this program.

“I can see it appealing to people who have done home-schooling. I can see it being interesting to people paying a lot for private school and for families
who, for some reason, are not wanting to send their child to the public schools in their community.”

As the fiscal agent, Union County is responsible for administering the details, including overseeing special education services.

If other districts are upset that they may be losing enrollment and state funding to Union County, Goforth is not sympathetic. “They had the same opportunity to start K12. This is the way of the future.”

K12, the largest publicly traded online learning company, has about 70,000 students in 21 states. It pays the sponsoring school district about 4 percent
of the per-pupil funds for administrative costs, according to Jeff Kwitowski, K12 spokesman.

“Like any other vendor, K12 is paid by the district for its products and services (curriculum, technology, teachers, admin and school services, etc.),”
he said in an e-mail.

K12 will not be able to determine average student cost in Tennessee until the end of the year, he said.

K12 earnings grew 22 percent to $384.5 million, according to a 2010 financial report filed by the company with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Enrollment increased by the same percentage.

Memphis City Schools Supt. Kriner Cash said that MCS, which already requires every student to take one online class, intends to open its own virtual school in a year, hoping to sell online credits to districts in mostly rural surrounding districts that do not have access to offerings Memphis has.

“If you look at the offerings we have in the arts, Chinese, Arabic, Russian, Japanese, these are things that could be virtual and really exceptional,” Cash

The city school board is expected Monday to approve $509,000 for online courses, including 13 online courses and two days of instructor training from K12 for $219,000.

— Jane Roberts: 529-2512

— Nashville Bureau Chief Richard Locker contributed to this story.

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