Idaho’s Largest Charter School Escapes Much Of The Criticism Aimed At Corporate Partner

Jan 30, 2013

There’s a room off the Bell family kitchen in Kuna where alphabet letters march above the fireplace and multiplication tables hang on cubicle dividers.  This is where 6th grader Wyatt Bell watches a video lecture on algebra. He’s one of about 3,000 students of Idaho Virtual Academy (IDVA).

“Some lessons have these videos. Sometimes they come really helpful for hard lessons,” he says. “And sometimes they’re just really annoying.”

Wyatt’s mom, Jenifer Bell laughs at that. She says she turned to online education when her oldest child, Alexa reached school age. Her daughter was too sick to go to traditional school.

“We just liked the curriculum and the lifestyle so much that we’ve just decided to continue,” Bell says. “And we kind of make the decision year by year.” 

"We just liked the curriculum and the lifestyle so much that we've just decided to continue," Jenifer Bell says. "And we kind of make the decision year by year."

They liked it so much Bell and her husband later signed their three other kids up for Idaho Virtual Academy.

IDVA is one of Idaho’s 48 charter schools and one of seven online charters run by for-profit companies.

The academy is Idaho’s largest public school, bigger than most of the state’s school districts. Its funding comes from Idaho taxpayers and it’s managed by K-12 Inc. headquartered in Virginia.

“It teaches them to be self-motivated and responsible and prepared for taking online classes in college, or any kind of career that would have them use a computer,” Bell says.

But the education provided by K12 Inc. has plenty of critics. Gary Miron is a particular thorn in the side of K12 Inc. He is a researcher for the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado.

“What we’ve found across a wide variety of school measures is that the performance is very weak,” he says.

Miron has written several reports critical of K12 and other for-profit online education companies. But unlike most K12 schools he’s studied, Idaho Virtual Academy has test scores and graduation rates on par with state averages. Desiree Laughlin, head of school at Idaho Virtual Academy largely credits that to experience.

“I think one of the reasons that we perform better perhaps than other K12 schools, has to do with just the length of time we’ve been around,” she says.

After almost eleven years in business, IDVA is one of the older schools in the K12 fold. Plus, Laughlin says her teachers get a lot of training on how to teach online.

“I also think that our families are very committed, we have about 75 percent of our families return to our school every year,” she adds.

That would be a high attrition rate in a brick and mortar school in Idaho. But it’s good for a K12 Inc. school.

K12s rapid student turnover alarms researcher Gary Miron. K12 vice president Jeff Kwitowski acknowledges students often don’t stay for the long haul.

“In many cases students aren’t looking and parents aren’t looking to online schools for a long term solution,” Kwitowski says. “And so success is often measured by whether a student is able to complete one semester or one year of school and then transfer into perhaps, a neighborhood school or another school.”

"They are doing what for profit companies do. They maximize profit," Gary Miron says. "That's why they're doing the things to address the interest of their stockholders rather than the interest of taxpayers or the public as a whole."

But Gary Miron says it’s more than that. He says it’s more profitable for K12 to sign on new students than to keep existing ones.

K12 reports making more than $700 million in 2012. Miron says the company recruits students it knows will not succeed to get the state money that comes with each student. Kwitowski says he knows the online model isn’t right for everyone but they can’t turn people away.

“Online public schools are required to take students who are eligible. There can be no discrimination or practices to prevent students to enroll in a public school,” Kwitowski says. “So what we’re doing is providing information to families who may be interested and they make the decision.”

K12’s business practices are subject to more than just criticism. The company is under investigation in Florida. And the state of Georgia is threatening to revoke the charter of one K12 school.

Critics accuse companies like K12 of trying to privatize public education. Supporters, like Idaho Virtual Academy mom Jenifer Bell have a standard response.

“Every brick and mortar school purchases curriculum from companies that are out of state and for profit,” she says. “So it’s no different.”

There are differences. A typical Idaho school district spends most (about 85 percent) of its money on teacher salaries and benefits. At Idaho Virtual Academy those make up less than 20 percent of spending. More than half of the academy’s money goes directly to K12 Inc.

But Bell says what matters is that it works for her family.

All the Bell kids say they enjoy being Idaho Virtual Academy students. Still teenager Alexa says her thoughts have turned to the high school that’s a short walk from her house.

“I really like friends from that school,” she says. “And I’m interested in meeting more. That’s kinda where I am right now.”  

That was last year. Now Alexa, a sophomore, spends her mornings at the high school doing choir, art and chemistry and her afternoons at home doing algebra, Spanish and literature. The youngest Bell siblings are still online full time but Wyatt, now in 7th grade, has abandoned the virtual academy in favor of an advanced science and math program at the local middle school.

Copyright 2013 Boise State Public Radio