A Virtual Mess: Inside Colorado's Largest Online Charter School
Just 24 percent of students use the learning software each day. A program called "FAST and Furious" allows kids to earn a year's worth of credit for a week of work. The school's leader helped direct millions of taxpayer dollars to his own for-profit management company. Despite it all, Ken Crowell keeps winning contracts to operate more schools. An Education Week investigation shines a light on what's wrong with the country's cyber charter sector.
It took a fishing trip to a remote lake in Canada for Paul Jones to finally blow the whistle on the founder of Colorado's largest online charter school.
Decades earlier, Jones and Ken Crowell had become friends, then business partners.
Around 2009, the pair renewed their acquaintance during a chance encounter at the supermarket. By then, Crowell was a serial entrepreneur deeply interested in alternative education programs for former high school dropouts like himself. He invited Jones to join the board of his latest venture: GOAL Academy, part of a wave of new schools aiming to educate students full time over the internet.
The year before, GOAL had emerged from the wreckage of Colorado's Cesar Chavez charter school network. Once hailed as one of the best brick-and-mortar charters in the country, Chavez fell apart when state auditors found top executives had given themselves exorbitant salaries, hired numerous family members, used school credit cards to pay their children's cellphone bills, and given students extra time to complete state tests.
Crowell, though, helped convince regulators that the online education program he had been running at Chavez should survive as its own school.
It was a decision that some of those officials soon came to regret.
From the beginning, GOAL's academic performance was weak. In 2012, fewer than 20 percent of the school's students graduated on time. Fewer than 4 percent scored proficient on state math tests. And that's just the public information: Even now, only 1 in 4 students uses the school's learning software on a typical day, according to internal school data obtained by Education Week as part of an eight-month investigation.
Still, the very people tasked with providing oversight—including Jones—helped GOAL keep growing.
When the school's original authorizer insisted on stricter accountability, GOAL leaders found someone else willing to take a more lenient approach. Undeterred by the existing school's poor performance, the GOAL board then helped Crowell spin off a for-profit management company so he could expand. Shortly after, the folks at GOAL's new authorizer worked with Crowell and his team to open a second school.
Everyone signed off when GOAL (still led by Crowell) decided to give the Summit Education Group (the new management company, owned entirely by Crowell) a multimillion-dollar contract, even though neither party has provided evidence the company ever submitted a bid.
No one blinked when Summit quickly received a second contract, to manage the new Rocky Mountain Digital Academy.
And all was quiet as millions of taxpayer dollars flowed from the two cyber schools into the new company's coffers, where it turned into a substantial private profit.
Then, in the spring of 2015, Ken Crowell decided to write himself a six-figure check.
Finally, Paul Jones says, he had seen enough.
During that Canadian fishing trip, sitting around a campfire far removed from the tangled web he had helped spin, Jones began composing a letter to Colorado charter school regulators.
The money line:
Crowell denies any wrongdoing, saying the check was to cover Summit's taxes. He rejects the notion that his schools are low-performing. He has lobbed numerous accusations back at Jones, a former convenience store chain owner who in 2014 had stepped down from GOAL's board to become Summit's chief operating officer.
Jones, now 76 and semi-retired, acknowledged that there are no heroes in this story.
"We were all complicit," he said.
A Broken Model
What's wrong with the nation's broken cyber charter sector?
The saga of Ken Crowell and Colorado's GOAL Academy pretty much sums it up.
The schools are based on an educational model that doesn't work for most kids. Many cyber operators have cashed in anyway, expanding aggressively, often with the help of their boards. Rather than pump the brakes, cyber authorizers have frequently gone along for the ride. And state lawmakers have repeatedly looked the other way, usually at the urging of lobbyists who fight tooth and nail against even modest attempts to improve oversight or limit growth.
Indeed, perhaps the most troubling part of the GOAL story is still unfolding.
In June 2016, the Colorado state board of education approved the creation of two new statewide virtual schools. Both will be managed by Ken Crowell and the Summit Education Group.
It's a pattern that has played out across the country for well over a decade.
More than 200 cyber charters in 26 states now serve 200,000 students and counting. The schools are publicly funded, but privately run, usually by for-profit companies. The largest is Virginia-based K12 Inc., whose network of more than 70 full-time online schools has produced on a national scale many of the problems often seen at smaller operations, such as GOAL Academy. (See statement from K12 Inc. on the struggles of full-time online public schools.)
On the management side, the sector has been dogged by troubling headlines.
An Education Week review of hundreds of media stories and dozens of state audits covering 15 years and 22 states found problem after problem: The founder of Pennsylvania's largest cyber charter admitted to siphoning off $8 million in public money, including $300,000 to buy himself an airplane. A Hawaii cyber founder hired her nephew as the athletic director—for a school with no sports teams. Ohio's biggest cyber charter school went to court in a failed attempt to keep state officials from seeing the same type of software login and usage data Education Week uncovered at GOAL Academy.
As part of an eight-month investigation into online charter schools, Education Week reviewed hundreds of news stories and dozens of state audits and reports dating back to the early 2000s. Together, these accounts raise a critical question: What would persuade state lawmakers to bring greater accountability to the nation’s troubled cyber charter sector? Read the reports.
And the academic situation at full-time online charter schools may be even worse.
A 2015 study by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that more than two-thirds of cyber charters performed worse than comparable brick-and-mortar charter and regular schools. On average, cyber students' math learning is so stunted, it's as though the kids haven't gone to school for an entire year. Overall, CREDO concluded, cyber charters have an "overwhelming negative impact" on students' academic growth.
Proponents tout the promise of online education and the intrinsic value of school choice. They point to surging parent demand as a sign of cybers' success. They contend that cyber charters serve a different, more challenging population from that of traditional public schools. The problem, they say, is not that their schools perform poorly, but that they're being evaluated the wrong way.
Undoubtedly, plenty of individual students have thrived at full-time online charters.
It's hard, though, to find any indication that cyber charters are succeeding at scale.
Recently, even ardent supporters of school choice have started to back away. Some states have begun pushing back, too, seeking to limit new cyber charters and trying to close the worst of those already open.
But for every attempt at accountability, two new states—Arkansas and North Carolina are among the latest—open new full-time online charter schools.
The ongoing game of whack-a-mole raises questions about whether calls for reform are anywhere near strong enough.
Take Colorado, where some regulators have been pleading for better oversight since 2006.
Twice in recent years, the legislature considered bills that might have prevented Ken Crowell and the Summit Education Group from receiving more public money to manage new virtual schools. Both times, the proposals were killed after heavy lobbying from the cyber sector.
"We move away from data and get into political shoving matches," said state Rep. Dave Young, who sponsored one of the failed Colorado bills.
"I don't think that turns out well for students and families."
'I Have Pretty Much Just Ignored School'
Inside a brightly painted trailer on the edge of Gunnison, just before Highway 50 heads back up into the mountains of Colorado's Western Slope, a school-issued laptop computer sat on the bottom shelf of an end table, collecting dust.
Two years earlier, at age 16, Veronica Kazares left the town's regular high school. She enrolled at GOAL Academy, hoping to graduate early.
By May of 2016, however, she'd fallen way behind. Since getting married and starting a full-time job several months earlier, Kazares said, she'd barely logged in to her online classwork.
"I have pretty much just ignored school," she said.
That makes Kazares fairly typical at GOAL, which officially counted 4,070 students and received $28.3 million in public funds during the 2015-16 school year.
Here's how the school works:
Students from all over Colorado enroll in grades 9-12. GOAL (short for Guided Online Academic Learning) provides them with a laptop and access to learning software, primarily a program called Odysseyware. An English unit might involve 15 or so online assignments. That work could include reading certain passages, taking short quizzes, doing vocabulary exercises, watching videos, and writing an essay.
GOAL officials describe their school as "blended," with opportunities for students to have face-to-face interaction with teachers, as well as online study. But students at the school have historically worked almost entirely online, at their own pace, and by themselves, according to current and former staff and students. Through early 2016, GOAL's model called for certified teachers to be available to grade assignments and offer help, usually through electronic chats or phone calls. At "Education Zones" (often strip-mall storefronts) scattered across the state, students could also drop in for tutoring and other supports from uncertified "coaches," who made about $25,000 a year.
According to GOAL's handbook, students like Kazares should have been spending between 25 and 30 hours a week on their schoolwork.
But that almost never happened, according to internal GOAL data obtained by Education Week.
During a typical week last spring, only 55 percent of active GOAL students used Odysseyware or the school's two other main instructional programs, the data show.
Let that sink in: Most weeks, more than 1,500 GOAL students didn't use the school's academic software. Once. Over a seven-day period.
On a typical weekday, meanwhile, just 24 percent of GOAL students used the programs.
Of those who did, a typical student spent about 35 minutes per day working on his or her online coursework.
That's a far cry from the four hours per day it would take to approximate the experience of a full-time student in a brick-and-mortar school: On any given day, fewer than two dozen GOAL students—just .007 percent of the school's total active enrollment—exceeded that threshold.
And despite the "anytime, anywhere" study that online schooling allows, the data looked far worse on the weekends. On most Saturdays and Sundays, fewer than 7 percent of students used GOAL Academy's learning software.
"These numbers are absolutely abysmal," said Michael K. Barbour, an education professor at Touro University in California and an expert on online education.
In statements issued through GOAL Academy's lawyer, school officials contended that Education Week's analysis of software-usage data "does not accurately capture all the ways in which GOAL students are learning."
The school also cited obstacles faced by its students.
"Over 95 percent of [GOAL] students either have an individualized education plan or are experiencing one or more … high-risk factors in their daily lives, such as being a teenage parent, having a documented history of personal drug or alcohol abuse, being involved in a street gang, or having a parent in prison," the statement reads. "These students have not been successful in traditional schools, and GOAL works hard to re-engage them."
Cracking Open the Black Box
Indeed, because so many GOAL Academy students are deemed "at risk," the school is considered an "alternative education campus" under Colorado's state accountability framework.
As an alternative campus, GOAL is graded on a steep curve.
In 2014, 41 percent of the school's students scored proficient on state reading tests. Five percent scored proficient in math. Those figures are far below the overall state average, but they put GOAL Academy in the middle of the pack compared with other alternative campuses. That showing allows GOAL to meet its academic accountability targets.
GOAL's most recent on-time graduation rate, meanwhile, was 26 percent. Its seven-year completion rate, a metric many consider friendlier to online schools, was 44 percent. Both figures are extremely low, even compared to other alternative campuses.
The bigger problem, though, isn't a single school's poor performance.
It's that cyber charters as a whole remain a black box: Well over a billion taxpayer dollars go into the sector each year, and overwhelmingly poor results keep coming out. But because cybers rarely release the types of information obtained by Education Week for GOAL Academy, the public continues to have extremely limited visibility into even the most basic aspects of how these schools operate.
Better access to data on how often cyber students log in, use instructional software, and complete lessons and courses would be valuable for two reasons, said Brian Gill, a researcher at Mathematica Policy Research and the author of a 2015 report called "Inside Online Charter Schools."
First, such information could help illuminate the causes of cyber charters' widespread academic struggles.
Just as important, Gill said, improved access to such data could help regulators ensure better oversight of how public money is spent.
That's because in most states with cyber charters, funding comes in the form of per-pupil allocations, determined on the basis of student enrollment and attendance information that is often extremely shaky.
Take Colorado, one of a handful of states that still determine funding for online charters based on a once-a-year headcount.
Last school year, the state gave GOAL Academy about $7,000 for every student who was enrolled on Oct. 1. That included roughly $4.8 million for 682 students who later withdrew. It also included millions of dollars for the hundreds of students found by Education Week to have used the school's learning software only sporadically, for months on end.
Similarly flawed systems exist all over the country.
California, for example, is one of almost a dozen states that base cyber charters' funding on average daily attendance or enrollment. But a 2016 investigation by the Bay Area News Group found that the 15,000-student, K12 Inc.-managed California Virtual Academies could count students as present if they logged into the school's instructional software for as little as one minute a day. (See statement from K12 Inc. disputing the Bay Area News Group report and addressing enrollment and attendance issues in online schools.)
And the biggest fight yet over cyber attendance is unfolding in Ohio, home to the independently managed, 15,000-student Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. As part of a bitter court battle with the state education department, ECOT lawyers argued the school should get its $106 million in annual taxpayer funds so long as it offers online courses to students, whether or not they actually attend them. A judge disagreed, and state officials in September informed ECOT that an audit of its login and software-usage records showed that it had been paid for 9,000 children who had not done enough work to be considered full-time students.
Eight other Ohio cybers were also found to have reported inflated attendance numbers. All told, the state education department is expected to demand repayment of more than $80 million. ECOT called the state audit a "sham" and is expected to press its case through appeals, along with other cyber charter schools in the state.
Such troubles amount to another red flag for the cyber sector, said Barbour of Touro University.
"We're already starting to see a backlash against cyber charters, based on their student-performance and -retention results," he said. "If we had better access to these types of granular data, the public would be able to see how little these schools are actually doing."
'It Opened Doors for Me'
Sweaty and exhausted after a day spent unloading trucks at the Gunnison Walmart, Alicia Bowlds hurried to meet her husband, then hit the road again to pick up her two young sons from day care.
Life may be hectic, but the hard-working 21-year-old said last May she was grateful for opportunities that might not have been possible without GOAL Academy.
"It opened doors for me," said Bowlds, who graduated from the school in December 2014. "It's very hard to find a job around here without a diploma."
Despite their overall struggles, the country's cyber charters have without question helped thousands of students escape bullying or boredom at traditional schools, thrive despite special circumstances at home, and find an alternative path to graduation.
At GOAL, such students seem to fall into two broad camps:
Struggling but highly motivated young people like Bowlds, who doggedly pursued her diploma despite numerous setbacks.
And wunderkinds like Carlos Lerma, the oldest son of Mexican immigrants, who said last May he felt trapped waiting for other students in his regular classrooms to catch up.
"I got so much done at GOAL," said the 18-year-old Lerma, who managed simultaneously to complete his online courses, work 30 hours a week, help raise his siblings and infant niece, and earn more than 20 credits at a local university.
The problem is that such success stories are the exception, not the rule.
National data suggest that full-time online charters work for at most 15 percent of their students, said James Woodworth, the lead researcher on the 2015 CREDO study of cyber performance.
But because the schools' funding is tied to their enrollment, many cybers have gone to extraordinary lengths to recruit more students, including thousands upon thousands who are ill-suited for full-time online schooling.
A 2011 investigation by The New York Times, for example, described K12 Inc.'s use of high-pressure call centers, where "enrollment consultants" were paid commissions and bonuses based on how many students they signed up.
A 2012 investigation by USA Today found that the country's 10 largest for-profit cyber operators sought to boost enrollment by spending a combined $94 million on advertising over the previous five years.
An operator in Florida even enlisted NBA star Dwyane Wade as a celebrity spokesman for its cyber charter and restaurant chains (only to turn around and sue Wade for $115 million after he stopped making appearances on their behalf; the suit was later settled).
At GOAL Academy, meanwhile, the preferred strategies for boosting enrollment were "Midnight Madness" events and large bonuses. The aim was to ensure that every possible student logged in to GOAL's software on count day, thus becoming a source of funding for the school.
"We would pick up 40 or 50 kids and take them to a place that had free WiFi," said Kevin MacVittie, a former GOAL regional director. "From midnight till 2 in the morning, we'd have them log in and do a couple lessons, then take them home."
Staff members went to such lengths in large part because GOAL offered bonuses if the school hit ambitious growth targets, MacVittie said.
During the 2013-14 school year, he said, he received a roughly $1,000 enrollment bonus.
Between 2014 and 2016, GOAL paid out a total of $227,624 in such bonuses, the school's financial records show.
In one of the statements issued via their lawyer, GOAL officials acknowledged the school had hosted "Midnight Madness" events and awarded enrollment bonuses, but described such strategies as the "practice of a prior administration." Both tactics have been discontinued, according to the statement.
But for years, MacVittie said, the message from the school's senior leadership was loud and clear: "Get them in, get them counted, and we'll figure out the rest later."
Growing Enrollment, Inadequate Supports
The "get them counted" part of GOAL Academy's strategy has worked extraordinarily well: After starting with 170 students in 2009, the school's enrollment exploded to 3,149 in 2013-14 and more than 4,000 last year.
It's the "figure out the rest later" part that has been a problem.
Like many other cyber charters, GOAL has seen a huge influx of struggling students, but failed to provide them with adequate supports.
Take Yeni Lerma, Carlos' sister. After starting at GOAL in 2014, she quickly became overwhelmed by the demands of school, a full-time housekeeping job, and then a new baby. By this past May, she had stopped logging in with any regularity.
"It's hard, because you have to get motivated, you know?" Lerma said. "It's not like in school, when you have teachers right there to help you."
She's right: GOAL officials say the school currently has a student-to-teacher ratio of roughly 50-to-1. Current and former staff members say that in years past, the school employed even fewer teachers relative to its large student body.
Such numbers are not unusual: On the whole, full-time online charter schools average nearly twice as many students per teacher as traditional public schools, according to Mathematica Policy Research. Most cyber students get as much live interaction with a teacher in a week as students in traditional public schools get in a day.
The evidence of inadequate supports also extends to other areas of cybers' operations: Half of cyber charter principals have no prior experience with online teaching, Mathematica found. More than one-third of cybers don't offer special instruction for English-language learners. Nearly half don't even provide their students with computers.
Nationwide, such shortcomings have contributed to huge enrollment churn.
At GOAL Academy, 15 percent to 20 percent of students officially drop out each year.
One strategy for dealing with the problem would be to slow enrollment growth, to focus on better serving existing students.
GOAL, however, tried something else.
They call it "FAST and Furious."
Originally, the program was just FAST, short for Flexible Accelerated Success Track. The idea was to provide a way for over-age students to make up lots of credits over a couple semesters.
When that effort didn't get results quickly enough, GOAL turbo-charged the program, allowing students to make up as much as a year's worth of work in a single week, according to multiple sources familiar with GOAL's operations.
A typical FAST and Furious project, according to Eryn Barker, a former director of GOAL's Gunnison site: a six-slide PowerPoint presentation on "natural resources," which earned one student a full credit for completing what should have been a yearlong Earth Science course.
And a typical online course in the program, Barker said, was "Reading for Information," developed by ACT Inc. and intended to help prospective employees learn to read common workplace documents. Last May, 19-year old Zachary Bartley sat in the Gunnison Education Zone, clicking through the class. He would earn a full semester's worth of high school English credit if he finished.
"It's a sham," said Barker, the former site director. "Other students are reading novels, analyzing poetry, and writing essays to earn those credits."
GOAL officials said 560 students were placed in the FAST and FAST and Furious programs during the 2015-16 school year.
In one of the statements provided by the school's lawyer, they described FAST as "competency-based," aligned to the Colorado education department's graduation requirements, and approved by GOAL's authorizer.
They described FAST and Furious as "student-led sessions at local drop-in centers that allow students to work on and present their FAST-related projects."
The school did not respond to the detailed allegations made by former staff members.
Last March, the school fired Barker, citing several infractions, including her use of a work email account to send communications in which she referred to other school staff members as "fucktards" and "fucking idiots."
Kevin MacVittie was fired around the same time, for having a romantic relationship with Barker, who was his subordinate at the time.
Both say they filed discrimination complaints against GOAL with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They alleged that other GOAL staff members were not punished for similar or worse behaviors. In its statement, GOAL said it had responded to MacVittie's complaint and was awaiting resolution, but had received no record of any complaint by Barker.
Through its lawyer, GOAL Academy suggested that information provided by students and disgruntled former employees associated with its Gunnison location are not representative of the school's statewide operation.
Questionable Management Practices
The last time anyone in a position of authority seriously attempted to slow GOAL Academy's roll was in 2012, when its original authorizer, Colorado's Charter School Institute, threatened to shut the school down.
Even then, concerns about the school were no secret, said Tony Lewis, a board member for the charter institute.
"GOAL was super-low-quality academically. It was hard to get a handle on student attendance and course completion. We were hearing lots of bad stories," Lewis said.
"Nonrenewal [of GOAL's charter] was definitely on the table."
To avoid that fate, the school turned to Colorado's Falcon District 49, a 20,000-student public school system near Colorado Springs that has made a cottage industry of supporting nontraditional schools.
In a statement, GOAL officials defended the move, saying they were "attracted to Falcon District 49's innovative and forward-looking approach to education in general and working with charter schools specifically."
But many in the charter world describe what happened as a textbook example of "authorizer shopping"—essentially, when a charter school seeks out a new oversight body in order to duck consequences for poor performance.
Either way, the move marked the beginning of a new era for GOAL Academy and its executive director.
From spring 2013 until late 2015, the people responsible for providing oversight instead enabled Ken Crowell to spin off new schools and send millions of taxpayer dollars from GOAL to his own for-profit management company, called the Summit Education Group.
The idea for Summit was not new. Crowell and other GOAL leaders had for years discussed the idea of creating such an entity. In a statement, Summit officials said that the company was initially formed in 2011 at the suggestion of the GOAL board.
But it wasn't until after GOAL switched authorizers that Summit truly came to life.
The plan was to take the school's model nationwide.
First, though, Crowell sought to secure for his company a large contract from the school he already ran.
So in October 2013, at the direction of the GOAL board, he led the school in a move to outsource much of its back-office operations, such as finances, human resources, and information technology.
Records provided by GOAL in response to an open-records request show the school never initiated a formal bidding process or issued a request for proposals from potential vendors.
GOAL officials collected only scattered documentation from companies that might do the work (including two proposals specific to GOAL, but less substantial than a typical bid for services; a PowerPoint presentation; two general brochures; and a handful of sample contracts between other companies and schools).
Despite multiple requests by Education Week, neither GOAL nor Summit provided evidence that the company submitted any documentation to demonstrate its interest in or qualifications for the contract: no bid, no proposal, no budgets, no plans.
Still, in January 2014, Summit got the contract.
The terms: start-up expenses, plus 12 percent (later upped to 15 percent) of all GOAL's revenue.
That was actually more expensive than what it already cost GOAL to provide the same services in-house, according to an analysis commissioned by the GOAL board that was provided to Education Week in response to an open-records request.
Crowell also took roughly 50 GOAL Academy employees and made them employees of his new company. In effect, that meant Summit was charging GOAL an inflated rate to have the same people provide the school with the same services they had already been providing.
And the kicker: Crowell was the sole shareholder in the Summit Education Group, entitled to 100 percent of any profits earned by the company.
The GOAL Academy board now claims it was not aware of this fact, and thus was not aware that it had awarded a huge contract to a company controlled by its own executive director.
That places the GOAL board on a long list of both boards and authorizers that have helped enable the establishment and expansion of poor-performing and mismanaged cyber charter schools.
It's a problem throughout the sector, said Greg Richmond, the president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.
"The groups that should be holding cybers accountable have in some cases actively partnered with companies to grow these schools," Richmond said.
"In other cases, they've simply been overmatched."
Take Falcon District 49.
Despite touting itself as a model authorizer of online schools, D49 now pleads ignorance, saying it didn't learn of GOAL's deal with the Summit Education Group for a full 18 months after the contract between the school and the company was executed.
It's a curious defense. During that span, staff members from D49 worked directly with Summit to launch a second online school. Many of the same people, working through a public agency called Colorado Digital BOCES, then gave Summit a management contract without requiring the company to submit a bid.
That deal called for Summit to receive 97 percent of the revenue generated by the new Rocky Mountain Digital Academy.
"We opened RMDA knowing Summit was going to be the service provider," said Kim McClelland, the executive director of Colorado Digital BOCES and a former assistant superintendent at D49, where she oversaw the district's authorization of GOAL Academy.
"They met all the areas of what a service provider would need," McClelland said.
Contract in hand, Ken Crowell once again tapped the staff and resources of GOAL Academy to get a new venture up and running.
In its first year, Rocky Mountain Digital Academy used GOAL's online curriculum, drop-in centers, record-keeping systems, special education teachers, and learning coaches. GOAL staff members were expected to increase enrollment at the new school. Rocky Mountain Digital's principal was also Crowell's top deputy, GOAL assistant state director Kris Enright. Some GOAL students, including Carlos Lerma, say they were told they were being transferred to the new school.
It didn't much matter, Lerma said—the two schools were nearly identical, down even to the content of their student handbooks.
For Crowell, the arrangement proved a great way to make a lot of money, both for himself and for those who had given him a launching pad.
Between January 2014 and the end of last school year, GOAL Academy paid the Summit Education Group $5.2 million.
Colorado Digital BOCES paid the company roughly $4.1 million more.
In three years as GOAL's authorizer, Falcon District 49 has earned nearly $1 million in administrative and oversight fees.
On top of their six-figure salaries as GOAL executives, both Crowell and Enright took consulting incomes from the Summit Education Group.
And in its first full year of operation, Summit netted $327,000 in profits, according to company officials.
Then Paul Jones wrote his letter.
Founder Defends Record
There are a few things Ken Crowell wants you to know.
The first is that he thinks of GOAL Academy less as a cyber charter and more as an alternative school. As such, he believes GOAL's real value is measured in lives saved, not test scores.
"You've got to really be careful when you throw statistics around," Crowell said during an extensive telephone interview, in which he was joined by his lawyer and two public relations advisers.
"If we did not give an opportunity to those students who had not previously been successful, we'd be no better off as a society than just letting those kids hit the street," he said.
Crowell also disputes the idea that GOAL Academy left the Charter School Institute for Falcon District 49 in 2012 in order to avoid sanctions, or because D49 offered less stringent accountability standards.
"You can say 'less strict.' Others would say 'more appropriate,' " Crowell said of D49's approach to oversight for alternative and online schools.
And when it comes to the Summit Education Group, Crowell and his lawyer acknowledge that his dual role at the company and at GOAL Academy created a conflict of interest. But they argue that the GOAL board was fully aware of that conflict, and still chose to give the company a legal contract.
"It was disclosed appropriately, with the complete board's knowledge as well as the knowledge of the attorneys involved at the time," Crowell said of his financial interest in Summit.
As for the company's first-year profits, Summit officials pegged the final tally as somewhat less than the "half million" dollars alleged by Paul Jones in his whistleblower letter. They said the actual amount was $327,000, which they described as a small operating reserve.
Crowell does acknowledge receiving a significant check out of that pot. But what Jones described as "a $400,000 'bonus,' " Crowell said was actually a $270,000 disbursement to cover the company's taxes. His representatives say the payment was "neither illegal nor unethical, and in fact is common business practice." Because Crowell is Summit's sole shareholder, they said, any taxes on the company's profits would accrue to him personally.
On numerous occasions, Education Week asked the company for budget information, copies of checks, and tax records that might substantiate its version of events.
Each time, Summit declined.
"As a nonpublic company, [Summit] is not required to disclose detailed financial and operating information, and as a matter of policy, it does not do so," company officials said in one written statement.
That stance does little to help Colorado taxpayers figure out what exactly happened to more than $9 million they've sent to the Summit Education Group during its two-and-a-half years of operation.
But it is revealing, said Western Michigan University professor Gary Miron.
"What you see at GOAL Academy is typical of what we've seen across the nation," said Miron, who has been tracking for-profit management of online and charter schools since the early 2000s.
"From the very beginning, the cyber sector has been dominated by for-profit actors with dollar signs in their eyes," he said. "The profit margins are high, the risk of expansion is low, and the public has very little insight into how its money actually gets spent."
Company Expands Its Reach
As August came to a close, Elsie Goines prepared for the start of her third year at the helm of the 550-student Las Animas school district, located in southeastern Colorado.
Her district may be small, but Goines had a lot on her plate: A few months earlier, Las Animas had won approval to open two new statewide virtual schools. Together, AIM-Global Academy and the Immersion School for Sciences, Technology, and the Arts planned to enroll 500 students this year, then quickly expand to serve a combined 5,000 students from all across Colorado.
Fortunately, the superintendent said, she wasn't on her own.
In exchange for 90 percent of the new schools' revenues, a company called the Summit Education Group had agreed to provide management services.
"I was approached by Summit and some other members of our community, who said they think this could be an opportunity," Goines said. "We hope to create a model that shows that online schools can work in this type of setting."
You shouldn't be.
Both Elsie Goines and the Colorado state board of education say they were aware of the questionable dealings that intertwined GOAL Academy, Summit, and the Rocky Mountain Digital Academy.
It just wasn't enough to deter them.
After Paul Jones penned his whistleblower letter, here's what happened.
On Aug. 15, 2015, a Falcon District 49 administrator named Jack Bay emailed other district leaders about a meeting he'd had with Jones:
Two months later, on Oct. 19 of last year, the GOAL board parted ways with Crowell. It paid him $70,633 to resign as the school's executive director.
A week later, the board abruptly terminated its contract with the Summit Education Group, saying Crowell had not properly disclosed his financial interest in the company. Summit promptly threatened to sue, saying that "false, defamatory, disparaging communications" by numerous GOAL officials had resulted in damages in excess of $20 million. The company also claims a breach of contract by the school.
The confrontation sparked chaos, in large part because GOAL, Summit, and Rocky Mountain Digital Academy were so entangled.
On Oct. 30 of last year, Summit sent a mass email to some 70 of its employees to say it was laying them off, effective the following day
Operations at Rocky Mountain Digital quickly deteriorated. A midyear review by staff members at Colorado Digital BOCES found that it was unclear if students were receiving special education or English-language-support services. Remaining staff members seemed unaware of upcoming state standardized tests, and no one seemed to know where student records were being housed, according to the review.
On January 19, 2016, the Colorado Digital BOCES voted to discontinue its contract with Summit, beginning the following school year.
In the meantime, though, the group decided it legally was bound to keep paying Summit 97 percent of Rock Mountain Digital Academy's revenue. It amounted to flushing roughly a million taxpayer dollars down the drain: By the end of last school year, reviewers alleged that Summit officials were unable to produce a budget, that they were not providing any support to Rocky Mountain staff, and that "there was no evidence that the [company] even monitors student achievement or growth."
In a written statement, Brad Miller, a lawyer for both Falcon District 49 and Colorado Digital BOCES, described the move to cut ties with Summit as an example of accountability at work:
There is some merit to that argument. Even when confronted with evidence of widespread failure and mismanagement, other oversight bodies have allowed full-time online charters to survive and keep growing.
But the reality is that Colorado Digital BOCES's attempt to hold Ken Crowell and the Summit Education Group accountable was too little, too late.
Down in Las Animas, Elsie Goines was moving ahead with plans to give Summit two more big contracts.
In July, she said she wasn't worried about her district's ability to hold the company accountable.
"I'm sure there are going to be things that are going to happen, even with the best-laid plans," Goines said. "But I think we've established a good working agreement."
That was apparently enough for the Colorado board of education.
Despite Summit Education Group's problems, and despite Colorado's long and troubled history with full-time online schools, the state board in June voted 5-1 to approve Las Animas' request for certification of AIM-Global and the Immersion School for Sciences, Technology, and the Arts.
Board Chairman Steve Durham cast the lone no vote—to call attention, he said, to concerns about Summit's history.
But had his vote been deciding, Durham said, he would have switched it to yes. State law required the approval, he contended.
Also a significant factor: Durham's personal commitment to school choice, and his personal belief that cyber charters are doing just fine.
"The fact that you don't like online schools doesn't mean that they aren't the best answer for some children," he said in an interview. "I don't think you will find anything that shows their performance levels are materially different from any other kind of school that has a similar population."
When told that researchers from Stanford University's CREDO center had found exactly that, in both Colorado and across the country, the chairman was unimpressed.
"Congratulations to the researchers from Stanford University," Durham said.
"That's one opinion."
Lack of Oversight
It's not as though no one has ever tried to address problems in the cyber charter sector.
Back in 2006, for example, Colorado's state auditor released a scathing report decrying the lack of oversight of the state's cyber charters, despite their poor performance. Of particular concern was a school called HOPE Online Learning Academy. The auditors found it had fewer than five highly qualified teachers for its 1,500 students, was using public money to provide private religious instruction, and was operating learning centers with "potentially unsafe conditions."
In response to the auditor's report, a commission was formed, and the state education department's office of blended and online learning was created.
In 2009, the office finally sent a "letter of corrective action" to HOPE Online. Within three weeks, however, the letter was rescinded, and the school was told it was actually doing fine.
Despite continued questions about the school's performance and efforts by local districts to exclude HOPE from operating within their borders, it's still around, serving roughly 2,400 students from across the state. In a statement, the school's founder and CEO acknowledged "challenges in our early years," but defended HOPE as a valuable option for Colorado students and families.
Indeed, Colorado has never actually closed a cyber charter outright. Even tepid attempts by state lawmakers to improve oversight have been met with fierce resistance.
Take, for example, a 2014 attempt to pass a proposal, recommended by a bipartisan task force, that would have required the state education department to certify prospective authorizers of online schools. If enacted, the measure would have at least made districts such as Las Animas think twice before opening new full-time online schools or contracting with for-profit cyber management companies like the Summit Education Group.
But after intense lobbying, the proposal was stripped out of a larger bill, and a new task force was created to further study the issue.
A year later, that second task force recommended the same measure.
Cyber charter lobbyists again won the day: Republican leaders in the state Senate promptly referred the resulting bill to a "kill committee," where it was voted down without consideration from the full legislature.
"We came up with very basic recommendations, representing nothing transformative in the sector. It was still killed," said Ethan Hemming, a former executive director of Colorado's Charter School Institute and the task force chair.
"It left me wondering, what was the point?"
From California to Arizona to Tennessee to Ohio to Pennsylvania to Maine, for more than a decade, it's been the same story, over and over again.
In recent months, even strongly pro-school-choice organizations like the Walton Family Foundation, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers have started to say it's time for real action. At minimum, the groups argue, new funding and accountability mechanisms are needed. Maybe cyber charters should be limited to serving the small percentage of students who actually seem to do well in a full-time online school environment. Perhaps enrollment growth should actually be tied to performance. (The Walton Family Foundation helps support coverage of school choice issues in Education Week. The newspaper retains sole editorial control of that coverage.)
But even the leaders voicing such policy proposals don't seem particularly confident in their chances of success.
"I don't expect this to change quickly," said Richmond of NACSA. "Virtual schools will fight very hard to stop any legislation or oversight that reduces their enrollments."
Looking at Colorado, it's hard to fault such pessimism.
Despite everything, GOAL Academy is still going strong, serving more than 4,000 students. The school says it has "retooled" its management and instructional staff and is employing "continuous improvement strategies" to address past concerns, according to a statement.
And as summer turned to fall, Ken Crowell was busy enrolling hundreds of students at the state's two newest online schools. Each will yield another windfall of taxpayer dollars for the Summit Education Group.
A 19 percent graduation rate. Students who don't use the learning software. FAST and Furious. More than $5 million in taxpayer money directed to his for-profit management company. A whistleblower letter. An alleged failure to provide basic services.
None of it was enough to prevent Crowell from getting the last word.
"There's definitely a lot of excitement," he said as the new school year approached.
"You just can't stop the influx of students."
Vol. 36, Issue 11