Some 'Cyber Schools' Falling Short Of Their Sales Pitch

Public cyber schools are popping up across the country, even for the youngest students. Many are run by the same for-profit company, which has made a big business of online education. But student test scores are falling short.

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And now some news from the world of online education. So-called cyber schools appear to be falling short of their sales pitch. The largest are run by a for-profit company called K12, which has made a big business of virtual education. Now, poor standardized test scores have captured the attention of state lawmakers around the country. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN in Nashville has this story about K12's failing grades.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Thousands of parents from Florida to Colorado have pulled their kids out of brick-and-mortar schools - away from playgrounds and in-person instruction - to do their lessons at home, online.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Answer problems correctly in a row to earn score multipliers.

TOM DIGIOVANNI: There are little enhancements along the way for the students.

FARMER: A K12 corporate representative was recently summoned to the state capitol in Tennessee. Like in a growing list of states, the company needed a special law passed here in order to enroll students from all over Tennessee. But even Republicans who hailed the partnership with the for-profit firm now wonder if they were sold a bill of goods. State Senator Stacey Campfield spoke out at one of several recent hearings.

STATE SENATOR STACEY CAMPFIELD: I like video games as much as the next person, but I had some questions regarding some of the scoring that you guys - my understanding is the scores were very, very low.

FARMER: In less than two years of operation in Tennessee, the company has 3,200 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. A mere 16 percent of them met state standards in math. Lawmakers are now considering an enrollment cap if the poor scores continue. State Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says he's rethinking the broad freedom initially granted to K12.

STATE SENATOR RON RAMSEY: I think that's what happens when try - when you have reform. You have some hits and some misses.

FARMER: In several states, critics believe K12 has done more than miss the mark. The company is facing lawsuits. Former employees in Pennsylvania accuse K12 of manipulating enrollment and performance data to milk state funding and create higher returns for investors. The model does sound suspect. K12 often bases its statewide operation within a small school district. That local school board gets a cut of the government funding for each new student. K12 lobbyist Ken Meyer sees these as districts open to reform.

KEN MEYER: Basically what it takes is a forward-thinking school administrator or superintendent who sees this opportunity to say, hey, I can do this in my district. And they latch on to it.

FARMER: And they get a little money off the top.

MEYER: They do. And that's fine.

JOE PITTS: You have to applaud them for, you know, recognizing the business opportunity.

FARMER: Joe Pitts is one of the many Democrats in Tennessee saying, I told you so. They never liked the idea. And now they've turned K12 into a political punching bag. Education experts who've closely studied the publicly traded company find the same flaws. Gary Miron is a professor at Western Michigan University.

GARY MIRON: K12 is gaming the system. And why are they doing that? Because they can, because we don't have the right oversight, we don't have the right legislation in place, and because that's how they maximize profit.

FARMER: But as the criticism rains from outsiders, those closest to K12 are defending the company.

HOLLY WOOTEN: I'm Holly Wooten. I'm a K12 parent.

FARMER: Wooten previously homeschooled her four kids.

WOOTEN: I'm not really coming from a very political agenda. I just want the best for my children.

FARMER: K12 says many of its students were bullied in class or have learning disabilities. The company's teachers have spoken up too. Summer Shelton is a sixth grade instructor who is a true believer.

SUMMER SHELTON: People are scared of something new. It's going to work. The students that it's working for, it's already making a major difference.

FARMER: But on the whole, K12 students lag those in traditional schools according to recent studies. Shelton acknowledges full-time cyber schooling isn't right for everyone. But that hasn't slowed a come one, come all enrollment push. And K12 is working its way into new states like Maine and North Carolina this year. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

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