Florida E-Learning Policy Shift Puts Spotlight on K12 Inc.
Company sees continued growth in state, but problems persist in its e-schools in some other places
Florida is pursuing policy and funding changes meant to open up the world of online K-12 education to greater competition, prompting tough times for the state-sponsored Florida Virtual School. But what do those policy changes mean for K12 Inc., the country's largest for-profit manager of online public schools, which has a major footprint in the state?
The answer is a mixed bag, with plenty of current and potential growth, but also continued questions about academic performance and quality, according to a review of recent news reports.
While the state-run Florida Virtual School recently announced that it has shed one-third of its workforce amid sharply declining enrollments, the number of online public charter schools that Herndon, Va.-based K12 Inc. manages in the state is expanding, with new schools opening this fall in Broward, Duval, Palm Beach, and Pasco counties.
"The tension in Florida is that there are so many different online options," said John Bailey, the executive director of Digital Learning Now, a national advocacy group based in Tallahassee, Fla. "The legislature is trying to harmonize funding for all those options and trying to make sure there is equal opportunity for all providers."
Jeff Kwitowski, the senior vice president for corporate communications for K12 Inc., downplayed the "us-versus-them" dynamic.
"From our perspective, we provide [content and services] to all types of institutions," said Mr. Kwitowksi, noting that K12 Inc. also has contracts related to virtual instruction programs with more than 40 traditional school districts across the state.
K12 Inc. is also growing in other parts of the country: This fall, the company will manage new full-time online schools in Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina, and Texas, bringing to more than 50 the total number of online and "blended" schools in its portfolio.
In Ohio, the new Insight School of Ohio, approved by the state department of education in July, will join seven other K12 Inc. Insight schools around the country in focusing on "academically at-risk students," according to a release from the school's nonprofit governing board.
"The Insight model is structured a little differently," Mr. Kwitoski said. "It's designed to provide more support for students in need of alternatives" to regular public schools.
A similar school has twice this year failed to gain approval in Pennsylvania, however.
The proposals submitted by the proposed Insight PA Cyber Charter School and seven other applicants, none of which was approved, "were deficient and lacked evidence that students would be offered quality educational programs," according to Timothy Eller, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania department of education.
K12 Inc. has also faced problems in Tennessee.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported this month that state officials had rejected K12 Inc.'s latest enterprise because they were still dealing with "low first-year student performance"at the company's virtual school in Union County.
Mr. Kwitowski wrote in an email that local officials had responded to the Tennessee education department's concerns and that the new virtual school "still plans to open this year."
In addition to managing more full-time online schools, Mr. Kwitowski said, the company is eager to continue expanding its offerings for traditional districts, charters, and other organizations looking to provide students with the opportunity to enroll in individual online courses.
It's all part of an ongoing shake-up in the K-12 online education market, said Mr. Bailey of Digital Learning Now.
"Years ago, the way you did online learning was your state sponsored a virtual school," Mr. Bailey said. But now, with the increase in different types of providers, states are beginning to move toward different models, he said, resulting in friction because the existing funding formulas were not created with the emerging new landscape in mind.
Vol. 33, Issue 02, Page 18Published in Print: August 28, 2013, as K12 Inc. in Spotlight as Florida Makes Policy Changes