Online education company with ties to Maine under investigation in Florida

Posted Sept. 11, 2012, at 7:29 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 12, 2012, at 11:03 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — As Maine moves forward with exploration of virtual charter schools and greater use of digital learning, K12, an online education company that was in line to provide curriculum for a Maine virtual charter school until it withdrew its application, is under investigation in Florida.

In 2011, Maine law was amended to allow charter schools in the state. Maine has no virtual charter schools. However, the Maine Virtual Academy, one of nine groups that filed a letter of intent to submit applications to open charter schools in Maine this year, proposed to contract with K12 “to provide curriculum, teaching and school management services.” The Maine Virtual Academy withdrew its charter school application on Aug. 7.

The Associated Press reports that the Florida Department of Education i s investigating K12 for allegedly using uncertified teachers in violation of state law and asking its employees to cover up the practice.

The investigation launched in January centers on whether K12 officials asked certified teachers to sign class rosters that included students who allegedly took classes from teachers who had not been certified by the state, according to documents obtained by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida.

K12 representatives reportedly asked officials in the Seminole County Public Schools in 2009 if teachers without state certification could lead online classes funded by the district. The uncertified teachers would be supervised by a certified “teacher of record,” according to the report.

After consulting with the Florida Department of Education, Seminole officials denied the request. Emails forwarded by a K12 employee to the school district allegedly indicate that K12 went ahead with the practice.

Seminole Public Schools then surveyed parents of students who had taken K12 online courses. Only 36 percent of parents said their child’s teacher was the one K12 had listed. At that point, Seminole officials asked the Florida Department of Education to investigate. That probe uncovered irregularities in other school districts, according to the Associated Press report.

K12 officials declined interview requests. In a statement, spokesman Jeff Kwitowski said the company is working closely with investigators.

“We do not believe the allegations against K12 regarding teacher certification are accurate,” he wrote. “K12′s policy is to follow teacher certification requirements. K12 teachers assigned to teach students in Florida are state certified. Because K12 is continuing to work with state officials on this matter, further comment would be inappropriate.”

K12, founded in 2000 by William Bennett, a longtime voice for conservative political causes who served as U.S. secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan, is an $864 million publicly traded company whose stock price has more than doubled in the last year.

The company made two donations totaling $19,000 to the RGA Maine 2010 PAC in 2010. That political action committee bought advertising to support Gov. Paul LePage’s campaign.

The Maine Department of Education does no direct business with K12, according to David Connerty-Marin, a spokesman for the department.

K12 is listed as a donor on the website of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, to which the department has looked for guidance on reform issues, but “we have no conversations with K12 about anything,” Connerty-Marin said Tuesday.

“Local school districts contract with vendors to provide specific online courses for kids throughout the state,” Connerty-Marin said. “If local districts come to us with questions about K12 as a result of the story, we will certainly help them look into it.”

The Maine charter school law requires that teachers be “qualified,” not certified, according to Connerty-Marin The statute reads, “All full-time teachers in a public charter school must either hold an appropriate teaching certificate or become certified within 3 years of the date they are hired, except for those with an advanced degree, professional certification or unique expertise or experience in the curricular area in which they teach.”

An advisory group that met for the first time this month to work on a digital learning plan for the state “will address a lot of these issues, including questions about certification,” Connerty-Marin said.

The group will delve into whether all online teachers of Maine students have state certification, whether reciprocity with other states would be effective or if other quality control measures should be put in place.

“We don’t know what happened in Florida,” Connerty-Marin said. “If Florida law required certified teachers and they weren’t using them — if they were breaking the law — it certainly should be of interest to districts in Maine using them and the Charter School Commission.

“We need to watch this investigation closely, and whether the accusations are true or not, we need to investigate ways to ensure that Maine’s approved online providers are, in fact, following Maine statute and employing certified teachers,” Rep. David Richardson, R-Carmel, House chairman of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, wrote in an email to the Bangor Daily News. “Implementing Seminole County’s practice of having virtual teachers sign off on their class rosters certifying that they actually taught them might be a good place to start.”

“Maine must move cautiously around all virtual charters schools,” said Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, also a member of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. “The sub-par results from others states cannot be ignored. Instead, let’s continue giving students options to take a class or two in subjects not offered in their schools.”

The Associated Press contributed to the report.

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