New Report Alleges Shortcomings in California Virtual Education Program

By Audrey Armitage — March 04, 2015 5 min read
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A new report claims that California’s virtual education system, run largely through the California Virtual Academies, is lagging behind brick-and-mortar schools in terms of academic performance, graduation rates, and resources available to students and teachers.

The report was released by In the Public Interest, an organization that studies privatization and contracting, and is often critical of the outsourcing of public services. The organization analyzed academic reports, public education data, financial reports, and contracts between the virtual academies and K12 Inc., a national online education service provider and CAVA’s parent company. The authors also conducted interviews with current CAVA teachers.

The virtual academies released a statement strongly denouncing the report, describing it as “inaccurate and deeply flawed” and arguing that it “relies primarily on misinformation from the California Teachers Association,” a union.

The report cites low graduation rates as one of the main shortcomings of CAVA’s programs. In every year but 2013, CAVA produced more dropouts than graduates, said Shar Habibi of In the Public Interest, one of the authors of the report. According to the report’s findings, CAVA’s graduation rate from 2010-13 was just 36 percent , compared to a statewide graduation rate of 80 percent. In 2010, only 16 percent of CAVA students graduated, while 62 percent dropped out.

The virtual academies and K12, however, maintain that the graduation rates are actually higher than what is reported. Jeff Kwitowski, a spokesman for K12, said in an e-mail that the state’s data system is unable to accurately track student mobility, which leads to erroneous calculations of graduation rates for online schools.

Kwitowski said 10 percent of students who enrolled in CAVA this year are already behind in credits, which can make it difficult to ensure these students graduate on a four- year track. Despite that credit-deficiency, “of the 719 Seniors who graduated last year, 539 graduated on time in their four-year cohort.”

Using the state’s Academic Progress Index, the report also asserts that 57 percent of schools with demographically similar student populations performed better than CAVA, and 71 percent of all California schools performed better than the online academies.

When asked if greater prevalence of nontraditional students enrolled in online schools may be a factor in CAVA’s academic performance, Habibi said that even in “struggling schools” there is usually some evidence of efforts to boost performance, but in analyzing the data, the authors of the report “didn’t see any consistent trend or improvement to indicate the program was developing or improving over time.”

The report also alleges that in order to maximize the money CAVA and K12 receive from California’s state per-pupil funding policy, even students who log on for one minute a day are being counted toward CAVA’s attendance record. Habibi said CAVA and K12 engage in “very aggressive recruitment,” and speculated that this strategy is aimed at increasing student enrollments, and the program’s per-pupil funding.

CAVA officials say that the virtual academies, themselves, do not pay for advertising, but that K12 does fund advertising and “outreach and enrollment services” on CAVA’s behalf.

Kwitowski also took issue with the report’s claims about how the virtual academies secure per-pupil funding. He said that students who only log in for a minute a day would not be counted, as teachers have to calculate attendance based on the amount of work a student completes, not just time logged.

Concerns About Oversight

The report’s authors also see problems with the oversight of the virtual academies. Under state law, CAVA is authorized by school districts and overseen by local boards. But according to Habibi, the local boards for CAVA Los Angeles only met four times during the 2013-14 school year, for less than 30 minutes each meeting, thus spending a total of one hour and 37 minutes overseeing a virtual school of roughly 3,000 students. She also pointed out that CAVA’s authorizers tend to be smaller districts that may not have capacity to effectively oversee CAVA’s virtual schooling program. Habibi said these factors “created a disincentive for rigorous monitoring.”

Habibi highlighted concerns that K12 is not putting enough money into the classroom. CAVA received over $95 million last year, and $47 million, or 49 percent of these funds, were paid back to K12, the report states. “There is a transparency issue here,” said Habibi, “We don’t know how much of the money CAVA and K12 receive actually goes back into schools.”

But Kwitowski said K12 pours considerable sums back into schools. He said over 90 percent of CAVA’s budget goes towards “student instructional costs,” such as teacher salaries, curriculum, and educational resources and technology.

And with regard to the oversight of its schools, Kwitowski said CAVA schools “follow all state accountability mandates required of all public schools,” including those pertaining to state testing, financial and academic reporting requirements, and conducting independent financial audits.

Although the report outlines a litany concerns about CAVA’s virtual education programs, Habibi said that her organization sees a place for online education, as it provides a good option for students for whom the traditional classroom environment does not work. However, her organization is concerned about “kids falling through the cracks” in California’s current online education system. To help address the issues found in CAVA’s program, the report argues for more thorough oversight of online education.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.