This post was written by my colleague Emma Brown, and it first appeared on her Post blog, Virginia Schools Insider. Brown co-wrote a November Post story, with Lyndsey Layton, about the growing influence of K12 Inc. of Herndon, the country’s largest provider of full-time public virtual schools.

Brown also reported on her blog earlier this month that K12 chief executive Ronald J. Packard earned a total compensation package worth $5 million in fiscal 2011, according to an amended annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The Layton-Brown Post article, which is worth a read, predated a Dec. 12 take on K12 Inc. by The New York Times, which led to a 24 percent drop in the K12’s stock a week after the publication. While the Times’s story received national attention, Brown, in the following post, takes note of reports about the issue of virtual education that predated both the Times and the Post stories on K12. It shows the growing concern around the country about virtual education and quality and control issues arising from the growth of virtual education.

By Emma Brown

A recent story in The New York Times about Virginia-based K12 Inc., the largest operator of virtual schools in the country, was the latest in a recent spate of critical national news stories about virtual schools.

“Polls show that the public and parents are leery of cyber schools,” wrote the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli, “and this kind of media attention (sure to be mimicked in local papers) will only make them more so.”

Leave aside, for a moment, the merit of the news stories. How about the notion that small newspapers follow meekly wherever the national media leads? In this case, that’s just plain wrong.

In the last seven weeks, Mother Jones, the Nation, the Wall Street Journal and we here at The Washington Post have all examined virtual schools in general and K12 in particular.

But local outlets and education trade publications were the first to raise questions about virtual schools’ cost and effectiveness.

In September, for example, a public radio station out of Greeley, Colo.., broadcast a piece about lax oversight of — and poor student performance at — virtual schools. That report, which focused on the K12-managed Colorado Virtual Academy, led the president of the Colorado senate to call for an emergency audit of the state’s virtual schools.

Over the last six months in Tennessee, local news stories and opinion pieces — on network television and in the Knoxville News-Sentinel and the Memphis Commercial Appeal — raised concerns about the cost and quality of Tennessee’s first statewide virtual school, which opened this year and is managed by K12.

“More care must be taken to prevent public school systems from being milked,” read a November editorial in the Commercial Appeal.

“Where public funds are involved, legislators owe it to constituents to tread cautiously before leaping into new educational programs, no matter how promising they might sound.”

Last February, Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey investigated political and financial connections between K12 and Idaho’s top education official, Tom Luna.

Luna — who plays golf with K12 chief executive Ron Packard — was elected with the help of contributions from K12 and other for-profit education technology companies, Popkey reported.

This year, Luna successfully pushed a controversial education reform package dubbed “Students Come First,” which mandated online courses as a graduation requirement and promised a laptop for every student.

And in 2008, Arizona blogger David Safier reported that K12 was outsourcing a critical teacher function — grading papers — to workers in India. The company later discontinued that practice.

I could go on, but you get the point. Local reporters in farflung places were paying attention to virtual schools long before folks in big cities took notice. And for that, they deserve a heap of credit.


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