School Choice & Charters

K12 Inc., Ga. Cyber Academy Contract Battle Brews

By Alyson Klein — August 20, 2019 6 min read
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Students locked out of their school’s computer systems. Educators unable to get access to some students’ records. Parents receiving emails asking that they return their children’s laptops.

That’s the state of play as K12 Inc., a major for-profit provider of online education, is in the midst of an acrimonious split with the Georgia Cyber Academy. The school, which serves about 11,000 students, is one of the largest virtual schools in the country.

To be sure, it’s hardly unusual for a vendor and charter school operator to go their separate ways. But it’s rare for both sides to be venting their frustrations so openly.

“This is the most public split between a vendor and a school that we’ve seen play out,” said Corrie Leech, the director of communications for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

K12 Inc. said the cyber academy was warned about potential disruptions if it withdrew from the company’s platform—a step K12 says violated an agreement.

The company has faced sharp criticism in a number of states—as have other operators of online charters—over its schools’ poor showing on state measures of academic progress, and questions about whether big public investments in its programs make sense. The company has argued that state accountability systems don’t provide an accurate gauge of its schools’ performances, and that its services are valued by parents whose children have struggled in traditional academic settings.

For about a dozen years, K12 Inc. managed the Georgia Cyber Academy, supplying not only the curriculum, but other services, including financial and human resources. But during that time, the school never met the academic targets in its charter, said Mike Kooi, the school’s executive director.

So last school year the board of the cyber charter school took over management from K12 Inc., and began exploring other options, even as the school continued to use K12’s curriculum, enrollment portal, and other services.

Choosing a Curriculum

Georgia Cyber Academy officials became convinced that a number of other curriculum providers, including Edgenuity and the Florida Virtual School, yielded better student results—and cost a lot less money—than K12, Kooi said. In fact, the new curricula that the school has elected to go with would cost just $5.8 million, as opposed to the $24 million it was paying K12, Kooi said.

“We were way overpaying for curriculum that wasn’t aligned to state standards and was not serving our students,” Kooi said.

K12 Inc. sees things differently. Recent academic improvements at the school can be traced directly to its use of K12’s curriculum, and to the academic supports the company offers, wrote Kevin Chavous, the president of K12 Inc.'s managed public school team, on the charter academy’s Facebook page.

The school used the company’s curriculum through most of the 2018-19 school year and posted gains, added Michael Kraft, a company spokesman.

Outside validators have found the company’s curriculum is “properly aligned” to state standards, said Chavous. What’s more, he said the prices the company charges are “very competitive” with other charter school operators, especially given some of the “behind-the-scenes” services K12 Inc. offers.

Georgia Cyber Academy purchased new tech platforms and new curriculum earlier this year. K12 saw that as a violation of its agreement with the school to serve as its “exclusive provider” of educational curriculum and technology through the end of the school year, which just started on Aug. 5, Kraft said. The company filed a demand for arbitration.

“While we are presently unable to predict the outcome of this arbitration, what we do know is the board of GCA school has already engaged other service providers for the upcoming school year,” Nate Davis, K12 Inc.'s CEO, in a recent call about the company’s earnings report. “These include providers for curriculum, computer equipment, and other managed school services.”

Digital Lockout

In the meantime, K12 Inc. is making life difficult for the cyber academy, the school contends.

The company has shut down student computers, the cyber charter said in a press release. The academy says K12 Inc. has also replaced login screens with a “caustic note” asking parents to return the computers, and “threatened” to come to students’ homes to get them, the statement said. It has locked the cyber charter’s employees out of their emails. It has shut students out of state-funded dual enrollment courses accessed online, keeping some students from accessing assignments they needed to complete, the school says.

Georgia Cyber Academy officials believe that K12 Inc. is trying to retaliate for the curriculum change, calling the company’s actions, “purposeful, retaliatory, and wholly indefensible” in the press release.

Kraft, the company spokesman ,said K12 Inc. warned the charter school in advance that withdrawing from its platform would disrupt students’ learning experience.

That move “triggered a standard course cancellation process,” the company said in a statement. “This included a computer freezing/reclamation process for the computers that K12 loaned to GCA students and are configured to work with K12’s curriculum.”

The state’s charter authorizer, the State Charter Schools Commission of Georgia, has backed up the Georgia Cyber Academy. The commission gave K12 until Aug. 2 to release students’ and financial records back to the school. When the company did not appear to comply, the commission sent a follow-up letter on Aug. 7, telling the company that it could be found in violation of state law if it did not return GCA’s “lawful property.”

The company said that the cyber academy isn’t being specific enough in its records ask.

“K12 has consistently told GCA and the State Commission that K12 intends to provide GCA with access to GCA’s student records and school financial records once it receives a specific written request to do so that identifies the records being sought,” the company said in a statement. “Thus far, all K12 has received is a generalized request that is not in compliance” with Georgia’s open records laws. “K12 will comply with the law.”

And K12 told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that the agency was operating on misinformation from the school and that it hoped to “correct the record” in a meeting.

Parents Take to Facebook

On social media, some families are complaining that their students are unable to complete their school work.

“My high schooler is finishing up a summer school dual-enrollment course and this is finals week! His laptop was locked down with ZERO notice,” wrote one woman who identified herself as a parent.

Others worried the company is tarnishing the school’s reputation. “Shame on you K12, this was VERY UNPROFESSIONAL to post this here on FB right before our students start school,” wrote another, referring to a Facebook post written by Chavous that accused the school of “questionable” practices. “What is your motivation behind this? To scare us, make us parent[s] question our educational choice?”

But another poster, who also identified herself as a parent, said she was “bummed” that the cyber academy was no longer part of K12 because her son had enjoyed the K12 curriculum.

Kooi said the school is working to make sure students have access to the materials they need.

“We are managing under the circumstances,” he said. “We’re getting computers on to people, and we’re doing the things we need to do to make sure our students are being served.”

Coverage of how parents work with educators, community leaders and policymakers to make informed decisions about their children’s education is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 21, 2019 edition of Education Week as K12 Inc., Ga. Cyber Academy Contract Battle Brews

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