A group of teachers at a network of California virtual schools has alleged a number of problems with the online operator, including inflated enrollment to increase per-pupil funding; violation of student privacy laws; misuse of federal funds meant to serve poor children; and inadequate services for children with disabilities.
Sixteen teachers filed a total of 69 complaints Thursday against the California Virtual Academies, or CAVA, a network of 11 schools that serve 14,000 students statewide. CAVA is operated by Virginia-based K12 Inc., a for-profit company that is one of the country’s largest providers of virtual schools.
The teachers are part of the California Virtual Educators Organizing Committee, which has been trying to form a union with the California Teachers Association, a state affiliate of the nation’s largest teachers union.
Spanish teacher Tom Beeman said that the efforts to unionize and the complaints filed Thursday are all part of push to improve conditions for both students and educators. “We want to see change and improvements in our school,” Beeman said.
But CAVA’s head of school, Katrina Abston, dismissed the complaints, saying they come from a small group of people and echo previous complaints by “various labor organizations seeking to represent CAVA certified teachers.” They are “without merit,” she said.
“The CAVA charter schools follow all applicable federal and state laws and have a strong record of compliance,” Abston said in a statement, pointing to previous complaints about CAVA’s special education services that were dismissed by the state department of education.
Those complaints were dismissed not because state officials investigated and found no problem, but because they didn’t include enough specific information about students to begin an investigation.
The latest complaints were filed with nine school districts that authorize CAVA’s 11 schools. Those school districts should be exercising stronger oversight, according to the teachers who filed the complaints, who said if the districts fail to act, they will take their allegations to the California Department of Education and perhaps to the federal Education Department.
Among the allegations in the complaints:
• CAVA administrators used federal Title I funds to pay for retreats, including at least one retreat at Yosemite National Park. Title I dollars are meant to serve poor children, but instead went toward travel, hotel costs and meals.
• CAVA special-education teachers are responsible for more students than the law allows.
• CAVA inflates enrollment by allowing students to remain on the rolls long after they have stopped logging in and participating.
• CAVA counts truant students as “present,” and allows students to be counted as present even if they do very little work, practices that inflate attendance and therefore inflate payments to the school.
• CAVA permits overly wide staff access to sensitive student data, such as psychological reports and special education status.
The teachers also complained about CAVA’s chronically low academic performance, including graduation rates far below the state average.
K12 Inc., a publicly traded company, has faced resistance in recent years after a period of rapid growth that made it the country’s largest provider of virtual schools. The schools it runs have come under fire in other states for poor academic performance, high student turnover and other issues.
Colorado’s statewide virtual school did not renew K12’s management contract in 2014, according to public radio station KUNC. Pennsylvania’s second-largest virtual school — Agora Cyber Charter, which had been managed by K12 — decided in fall 2014 to transition into a self-managed school, according to Education Week.
And in Tennessee, officials ordered the statewide virtual school run by K12 to close at the end of the 2014-2015 school year. A judge gave the school a reprieve this month, allowing it to stay open one more year, according to The Tennessean. But if its academic performance doesn’t improve, it could close at the end of the next school year.