Commercial Online Provider in Calif. Targeted in Teacher Complaints

Senior Editor

Cross-posted from the Digital Education blog

A group of teachers in a network of California virtual charter schools have lodged a series of complaints about the online provider, claiming it fails to meet standards for academic performance, student-data privacy, Internet access, and attendance and truancy policy, among other objections.

The allegations were filed against the California Virtual Academies by a group of educators who work in the virtual schools. They outlined their complaints in letters to nine school districts across the state where branches of the schools operate.

The districts authorize those charter schools, and thus have the obligation to make sure they adhere to acceptable practices, organizers of the effort say.

The group behind the complaints is the California Virtual Educators Organizing Committee, which is made up of teachers who say they want to form a union with the California Teachers Association to give teachers in online schools a more powerful voice in schools’ decision-making—and, by implication, correct alleged flaws in those programs. 

In a statement, the head of school for the California Virtual Academies said the complaints came from “a small group of individuals,” consistent with other allegations that had not held up to scrutiny.

Similar allegations have been rejected by state regulators in the past, the academies official said.

In all, 69 complaints from the teachers’ group were lodged with individual school districts, county superintendents of education, and with the California department of education.

Specifically, the teachers allege that:

  • The CAVA schools have not kept up with acceptable norms in students’ academic performance, or in guiding students to graduation. The virtual teachers’ group cites a graduation rate of 47 percent in the CAVA system (and much worse in some individual academic years), while the state rate hovers around 80 percent;
  • Special-needs students are not being adequately served by the CAVA schools. The complaint says the academies fail to implement federally mandated Individualized Education Plans; violate state-mandated limits on caseloads handled by resources specialists; and that they fail to provide students with an appropriate education in the “least restrictive environment” possible;
  • The schools do not adequately protect student data. The teachers contend that the schools violate federal privacy law by allowing teachers and staff who “do not have a legitimate educational interest” in students’ records to have access to them. Those records include psychological reports, IEPs, and information on eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches and students’ economic status;
  • Students are unfairly being required to pay for Internet access, in violation of state law. The complaints say that for students to attend CAVA, they need to have access to high-speed Internet in their homes. While the virtual provider offers subsidies for disadvantaged students to obtain that connectivity, that help isn’t adequate for many students, the virtual teachers contend; and 
  • The schools have failed to maintain adequate reserve funds, in violation of state law.

The California Virtual Academies’ parent company is K12 Inc., a major provider of online services in states around the country. The Herndon, Va.-based company has been criticized for years by those who question the academic performance of its schools, and the organization’s business practices, and who oppose giving the for-profit company taxpayer funding for its work associated with online learning.

K12 officials have long argued that they provide a valuable services to students who have struggled for academic or social reasons in traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Many academic measures of student performance don’t account for those disadvantages.

Some of the teachers’ complaints echo those raised earlier this year by In the Public Interest, an advocacy group that studies privatization and contracting. The organization took issue with the academic performance and resources for teachers and students at the academies.

At the time, a spokesman for K12 Inc. called that report’s findings “inaccurate and deeply flawed,” and said it “relie[d] primarily on misinformation from the California Teachers Association.”

Katrina Abston, the head of school for the  California Virtual Academy, said in an emailed statement that the new allegations from the virtual teachers’ group mirrored “prior complaints brought against the California Virtual Academies…by various labor organizations seeking to represent CAVA certified teachers.”

Each of 11 schools operated by the academies go through independent financial audits and have been shown to have sound practices, she said. Similarly, special-education complaints have been previously reviewed by the state department of education and found wanting, Abston added.

The academies “will continue to cooperate with any regulatory body and vigorously defend against any allegations, including those deemed without merit,” Abston said in the statement.

UPDATE (June 19): This post has been updated with an additional details about the complaint, and the online providers’ response.

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