Virtual Equality?

As the school year began, I wrote about how students at some MNPS high schools were forced into online classes due to a teacher shortage. This impacted students primarily at Antioch, Whites Creek, and Cane Ridge High Schools. According to my sources, it’s still going on to some degree. That is, actual teachers haven’t been found to fill many of the positions that were empty at the beginning of the year. So, the students are taking courses from Edgenuity.

Here’s what I noted about Edgenuity at the time:

Here’s a review of materials developed by Edgenuity for grades 9-12 ELA done by the Louisiana Department of Education. Here’s the short version: Edgenuity received a Tier III (the lowest) rating for the quality of the materials it provided to students for grades 9-12 ELA.

Here’s what Louisiana had to say about Edgenuity’s 6-8 math materials. Also an overall Tier III rating, but mixed reviews depending on grade level and specific learning objective.

Now, there’s a court case about whether virtual classes provide a “substantially equal” educational opportunity for students.

Education law professor Derek Black notes:

The Tennessee Court of Appeals has taken up a fascinating issue regarding students’ access to teachers.  The problem could only arise in the brave new world of computers.  In short,  a student at a Tennessee high school had fallen behind in algebra and end-of-grade assessments were looming.  The school pulled the student  out of the class and placed the student in a computer based credit recovery program.  Apparently, this occurred with several other students.  The student claims that the school did this to help increase its standardized test scores.

The disputed issue in the case seems to be a narrower one: do students have the right to access a teacher?  The plaintiff says yes.  The school’s attorney says no.

And here’s Black’s analysis of the legal issue at hand:

The Supreme Court in  Tennessee Small School Systems v. McWherter, 851 SW2d 139 (1993), held that students have a constitutional right to “substantially equal educational opportunities.”  The underlying facts in the case involved disparities in teacher salaries across the state.  Consistent with the overwhelming social science consensus, the court indicated that “teachers, obviously, are the most important component of any education plan or system.”  Because salary disparities resulted in students having unequal access to teachers, the Court ordered the state on more than one occasion to remedy is system of funding teacher salaries across the state.

So while state statutes may not create any specific property interest in access to a teacher, the state constitution creates a right to equal educational opportunities, which teachers are the most important part of.

And that’s why the situation at these schools is so interesting. The students at Antioch, Cane Ridge, and Whites Creek didn’t sign up for or choose virtual education. They were not offered the same or similar educational opportunity as students at other MNPS high schools — that is, students at most MNPS schools were assigned to an actual teacher who appeared in-person every day to provide instruction. These students were denied that opportunity and assigned to a program of questionable quality.

Why did this happen? One factor (though certainly not the only one) is teacher salaries. Teacher pay in MNPS is simply not competitive relative to the cost of living. It’s definitely not competitive relative to similar districts around the country.

The teacher salary issue is an important one, because it is the issue that drove the Small Schools court decision. In fairness, teachers at Antioch, Cane Ridge, and Whites Creek earn the same salaries as any other Nashville teachers. However, Nashville’s inability to adequately staff schools creates substantially unequal educational opportunity across the district. In fact, the district cited lack of adequate state resources as one reason it joined Shelby County in suing over BEP (Basic Education Program) funds.

It’s difficult to argue that students who signed up for and planned to attend traditional classes and then were forced into online learning were provided educational opportunities that are “substantially equal” to their peers at schools where this did not happen.

How this will be addressed remains to be seen.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

What Did They Just Do?

The Tennessee General Assembly today passed a bill to create a voucher system for students with IEPs. The plan was limited from its original scope to only apply to the most severe cases.

The vote in the House was particularly close, with 52 representatives voting in favor — 50 are required for passage.

What does the bill do?

If you ask the sponsors (and a number of members did), they really don’t know. Essentially, the legislation (HB138) creates individual education accounts of around $6600 to be provided to the parents or guardians who meet the qualifications in the amendment. They must have an IEP. Around 18,000 students (those with autism, blind or deaf, mental disabilities, and orthopedic disabilities) qualify.

A similar program in Florida, started in 1999, has been expanding rapidly. And, it’s been subject to fraud. When asked about what safeguards Tennessee’s plan will have, the sponsors said that the bill calls on the departments of education and health to qualify vendors. When asked what standards may be used to qualify vendors, the sponsors said they didn’t know.

When asked if the money will be distributed as a debit card or a bank account or a voucher, the sponsors didn’t know.

An important element of the bill is that any parent/guardian who accepts the voucher MUST forfeit their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. That’s a pretty big deal. When asked what rights, exactly, parents would be forfeiting, Rep. Roger Kane, a co-sponsor, said, “They are all listed in the IDEA.”

Indeed they are. And it’s pretty important. The rights include:

The right of parents to receive a complete explanation of all the procedural safeguards available under IDEA and the procedures in the state for presenting complaints

Confidentiality and the right of parents to inspect and review the educational records of their child

The right of parents to participate in meetings related to the identification, evaluation, and placement of their child, and the provision of FAPE (a free appropriate public education) to their child

The right of parents to obtain an independent educational evaluation (IEE) of their child

The right of parents to receive “prior written notice” on matters relating to the identification, evaluation, or placement of their child, and the provision of FAPE to their child

The right of parents to give or deny their consent before the school may take certain action with respect to their child

The right of parents to disagree with decisions made by the school system on those issues

The right of parents and schools to use IDEA’s mechanisms for resolving disputes, including the right to appeal determinations

Depending on the child’s disability and a school system’s ability, the parents may be entitled to provision of services by private providers at school system expense. The advantage being that there is accountability to the LEA for providers offering the services.

So, forfeiting one’s IDEA rights is a big deal. And it could mean kids are not well-served by private providers.

An analysis of similar programs across the country found that none of them were subject to state testing to determine student outcomes and that accountability provisions were weak or non-existent. This analysis also noted that as early as 2003, Florida realized its 4-year-old program was subject to fraud. But this 2011 report highlights significant fraud ongoing in the expanding Florida program.

Just a four years ago, Tennessee authorized the creation of the Tennessee Virtual Academy operated by for-profit provider K-12, Inc. At the time, Senator Andy Berke warned of K-12, Inc.’s problems in operating virtual schools in Arizona. He asked how we could be sure there wouldn’t be fraud in Tennessee’s virtual school operated by K-12. The sponsor, Senator Dolores Gresham, said that the accountability would be built-in by the rules.

Yesterday, after $43 million spent on K-12, Inc. in Tennessee, Senator Gresham led the opposition to a last-ditch effort to keep K-12, Inc. open. To her credit, this was an admission that the experiment she had championed had failed. Gresham correctly noted that the Tennessee Virtual Academy was the worst performing school out of 1700 Tennessee schools.

Here’s the problem: Tennessee taxpayers won’t get their $43 million back. More importantly, the children who were poorly-served by TNVA can’t get their time back. They will return to other education environments behind their peers and possibly unable to complete school.

If the IEP voucher program fails, what will happen in two or three or four years to the children who were in the program? How will we ensure the accountability measures work for this program when they failed miserably for TNVA? And if the argument is that they worked for TNVA because the school is closing now, what happens to those kids who might lose years of their lives to a failed experiment?

What did the Tennessee General Assembly just do?

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

Killing K-12, Inc.

I wrote earlier about legislation filed this session that would extend the life of failing Tennessee Virtual Academy (TNVA) operator K-12, Inc.

Now, legislation has been filed that would effectively kill K-12, Inc. in Tennessee.

HB 1331/SB 1363 by Rep. Mike Stewart and Sen. Jeff Yarbro, both of Nashville, would have the effect of ending K-12, Inc.’s reign as an unchecked operator of a failing virtual school.

Here’s the basic language of the bill:

Local Education Agencies – As introduced, prohibits an LEA from contracting for services with a nonprofit or for-profit operator or manager of a virtual school if the contract requires the LEA to pay more per pupil for students in the virtual school than the operator or manager charges individual students for its services. – Amends TCA Title 49, Chapter 16, Part 2.

Union County is the LEA “home” of the Tennessee Virtual Academy, a school that has been among Tennessee’s lowest performing since its opening. K-12, Inc. operates the school and does so at an apparent profit.

Interestingly, in Wednesday’s Senate Education Committee meeting, Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga brought up virtual schools during a presentation on Pre-K that had nothing to do with virtual schools.

Gardenhire repeatedly asked if online instruction, such as that offered through a virtual school, would be the most appropriate option for a student diagnosed with Autism. When the representative from the Tennessee Department of Education said that it would depend on the quality of the virtual program, Gardenhire persisted, accusing the TN DOE of hedging on the issue.

Gardenhire asked if it was appropriate to close a virtual school that might be the only option for an Autistic child.

This line of questioning was interesting not just because it was irrelevant to the topic at hand. It also outlines a likely line of argument proponents of K-12, Inc. such as Gardenhire and Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham will use in defending the school’s continued operation in the state.

To be clear, the legislation filed by Stewart and Yarbro will not close all virtual schools. Districts are free to operate their own virtual schools that comply with the legislative language. The virtual school operated by MNPS would qualify, for example. But, the bill would close the TNVA — an entity that has both drained taxpayer dollars and failed to serve students during its time in operation.

More on K-12, Inc. in Tennessee:

Cash vs. Kids?

K-12, Inc. faces Tennessee Trouble

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

Virtually Unchecked

The Virtual Public Schools Act, which authorized the creation of the Tennessee Virtual Academy run by K12, Inc. is set to expire this year.

Already, legislation (HB 4) has been filed to extend the Act until 2019. No Senate companion yet exists, but it seems likely that K12, Inc.’s top legislative champion, Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham, will carry the bill in the Senate.

The Tennessee Virtual Academy has come under fire the last several years as its students have posted the lowest scores in academic achievement in the state. The situation is so bad that this year, former Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman recommended the school not be allowed to enroll additional students.

The Union County School Board (the system that hosts TNVA) denied that request and collected a check from K12, Inc.

I’d anticipate significant pushback this year against any unchecked continuation of K12, Inc.’s operation in Tennessee. That said, both legislators and Governor Haslam have expressed concerns in the past only to see K12, Inc. continue with business as usual.

Will K12’s lobbyists be successful this year, or will this legislative session finally put a cap on the unchecked growth of TNVA?

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

Ravitch: Ed Reform is a Hoax

Education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch spoke at Vanderbilt University in Nashville last night at an event hosted by Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence (TREE), the Tennessee BATs (Badass Teachers), and the Momma Bears.

Ravitch touched on a number of hot-button education issues, including vouchers, charter schools, teacher evaluations, and testing. Many of these issues are seeing plenty of attention in Tennessee public policy circles both on the local and state levels.

She singled out K12, Inc. as a bad actor in the education space, calling the Tennessee Virtual Academy it runs a “sham.”

Attempts have been made to cap enrollment and shut down K12, Inc. in Tennessee, but they are still operating this year. More recently, the Union County School Board defied the State Department of Education and allowed 626 students to remain enrolled in the troubled school. The reason? Union County gets a payoff of $132,000 for their contract with K12.

Ravitch noted that there are good actors in the charter sector, but also said she adamantly opposes for-profit charter schools. Legislation that ultimately failed in 2014 would have allowed for-profit charter management companies to be hired by Tennessee charter schools.

On vouchers, an issue that has been a hot topic in the last two General Assemblies, Ravitch pointed to well-established data from Milwaukee that vouchers have made no difference in overall student performance.

Despite the evidence against vouchers, it seems quite likely they will again be an issue in the 2015 General Assembly. In fact, the Koch Brothers and their allies spent heavily in the recent elections to ensure that vouchers are back on the agenda.

Ravitch told the crowd that using value-added data to evaluate teachers makes no sense. The Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) has been around since the BEP in 1992. It was created by UT Ag Professor Bill Sanders. Outgoing Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman made an attempt to tie teacher licenses to TVAAS scores, but that was later repealed by the state board of education. A careful analysis of the claims of value-added proponents demonstrates that the data reveals very little in terms of differentiation among teachers.

Ravitch said that instead of punitive evaluation systems, teachers need resources and support. Specifically, she mentioned Peer Assistance and Review as an effective way to provide support and meaningful development to teachers.

A crowd of around 400 listened and responded positively throughout the hour-long speech. Ravitch encouraged the audience to speak up about the harms of ed reform and rally for the reforms and investments our schools truly need.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

Cash vs. Kids?

The Union County School Board voted unanimously last night to allow 626 students to remain enrolled in the Tennessee Virtual Academy, a joint project between Union County Schools and K12, Inc.

The decision comes in the wake of a recommendation by Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman that the students be un-enrolled due to the poor performance of the TNVA.

Following that recommendation, parents and some state legislators appealed to the Governor’s office to ask that Huffman’s recommendation be reversed.

It’s worth noting that Union County Schools receives a 4% administrative fee for their part in the program.  Based on numbers in this article, that would mean a total of $132,000+ for Union County Schools if the students remain enrolled.

So, instead of giving the Virtual Academy time to improve its processes so that it may better serve future students, Union County took the money (from state taxpayers) and allowed the students to enroll in one of the worst-performing schools in the state.

What happens to those 626 students if they are served as poorly as the students enrolled in TNVA in previous years? Will any of the $132,000+ Union County collected for this decision be used to help them catch up?

This is definitely a situation to watch going forward.  One would hope that K12 will improve and provide a better service. But there’s certainly legitimate concern based on their track record.

 

For more on Tennessee education politics and policy, follow @TNEdReport

K12, Inc. Faces More Tennessee Trouble

The Tennessee Virtual Academy, operated by K12, Inc. and Union County Schools, is facing trouble as it seeks to allow 626 students who have enrolled to begin classes there.

The problem is that Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman issued an order preventing TNVA from enrolling new students pending additional monitoring of the school. For the past two years, students at TNVA have been performing at among the lowest levels of any students in the state.

State education officials and legislators have expressed concerns about this performance and TNVA and K12 have indicated they are working to improve.

Until the school shows improvement, though, Huffman wants to prevent further enrollment.

The Knoxville News Sentinel has the full story on a group of parents and legislators who made an appeal to officials with the Governor’s office to reverse Huffman’s decision and allow the students to continue in the school this year.

If the decision by Huffman is not reversed, the students who signed up for TNVA may enroll in schools in their home districts or seek other educational options.

 

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

Democrats Introduce Legislation to Repeal Virtual Schools

In the wake of K12 Inc.’s broadly publicized failures, and the dust-up on Capitol Hill about them, two Democrats, Representative Mike Stewart and Senator Lowe Finney, have filed legislation (HB 0728/SB 0807) to repeal the Virtual Public Schools Act.  Many folks may not be aware that the Virtual Public Schools Act (T.C.A. 49-16-201 et seq.) is actually self-repealing.  Section 216 of the Act reads:

This part is repealed effective June 30, 2015.

Rep. Stewart/Sen. Finney’s bill simply changes the repeal date from June 30, 2015 to June 30, 2013.

There’s a good bit of frustration with K12 Inc. and virtual schools right now, even by members of the Republican majority.  That being said, however, Sen. Gresham, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, has signaled that she’s not ready to do away with virtual schools just yet, as has Governor Haslam.

Virtual Schools in Tennessee

In the wake of the renewed K12 dust-up, Andy Sher over at the Times Free Press has another good article out this morning highlighting a new bill put forward by the Haslam Administration to cap online school enrollment.  By the way, let it be known that the Times Free Press (and Andy Sher) have had consistently excellent coverage of this issue over the past year.  Whether it’s because Chattanooga native (and almost certainly next Mayor) Andy Berke started the anti-virtual schools crusade (and then homed in on* K12 as its dismal performance became public), or because K12’s Tennessee “home” is in Union County, just a ways down the road from Chattanooga, who knows.

Here’s the important point to take from Sher’s article today:

Haslam’s legislation would apply to the Tennessee Virtual Academy and any other online schools that come down the path. House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, who is carrying the administration’s package of bills, said Tuesday he had not been fully briefed on the measure.

Huffman spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier said in an email, “This bill is meant to enhance the accountability for virtual schools, and to base their future growth on demonstrated performance.

“This is not about K12; this is a matter of learning from the first year of implementation of the Virtual Schools Act and making improvements with a focus on student achievement,” she said.

The bill restricts new operators of online schools to no more than 1,500 students. After students demonstrate they are indeed learning through state achievement tests, they can enroll no more than 5,000. That cap also applies to K12 Inc.’s operation, Gauthier confirmed.

Another provision in the bill restricts a county online school’s ability to accept students from outside the local district.

That initially would not apply to K12 Inc.’s current student population in Union County. But Gauthier confirmed that in the future it would apply to new students.

That’s right.  K12 is not on its own here.  Aside from the prospect of future virtual schools, there is already at least one other virtual school operating in Tennessee.  Did you know that Metro Nashville Public Schools has its own virtual school?  It’s true!

For all of the protesting by the spokeswoman for Commissioner Huffman, this most certainly is about K12 and the Tennessee Virtual Academy.  What the response signals, however, is that the current legislature (and Governor and Commissioner) appear to be unwilling to backtrack on virtual schools entirely, as many K12 critics would like.  Instead, the measure put forward would be a compromise, while still preserving the opportunity for growth in Tennessee of (1) virtual schools and (2) for-profit school operators.**

*It is unclear whether the correct usage is “home in on” or “hone in on.”  I have used the former, because it appears to make more sense grammatically.

**The New York Times did an extensive piece on for-profit online school operators in 2011.