Idaho's Largest Charter School Confirms It Outsourced Student Papers To India

Oct 14, 2013

Technology, education, computer
Credit Shane Pope / Flickr Creative Commons

Idaho Virtual Academy is the state’s largest public charter school with more than 3,000 students. IDVA contracts with for profit company K12 Inc. for its curriculum and management. In 2007, K12 sent student essays from several schools to India to be edited. We now know that Idaho Virtual Academy was one of those schools.

This story came to light in 2008 with Arizona blogger David Safier. Safier says he was given leaked documents that showed eight K12 schools sent thousands of student assignments to India between August 2007 and January 2008. We can’t independently confirm the validity of the documents, but after Safier’s writing, K12 did acknowledge it had tried a pilot project sending essays to India and that the Arizona school was part of it. At the time it got some national attention.

But few in Idaho seem to have noticed, until now. Activist and Caldwell teacher Travis Manning read some of Safier’s old posts and saw Idaho Virtual Academy on the list of schools.

“And I thought to myself, huh, I don’t remember this story ever breaking in Idaho about any Idaho online schools outsourcing student essays overseas,” Manning says.

Manning wrote an op-ed about it that’s been printed in some newspapers and websites. Manning expressed several concerns about the program. He thinks it might have violated student privacy laws. He says parents should have been notified about it in advance. And he says, as a high school English teacher, it doesn’t sound very effective. Manning says helping kids with writing has a lot to do with teacher student relationships.

“You know their habits, you know their quirks, you know their tendencies in their writing,” Manning says. “When you outsource that you don’t get that background and that perspective. I don’t know that you can adequately help a student when you’re not always putting your eyes on their paper.”

K12 spokesman Jeff Kwitowski acknowledges that the Idaho Virtual Academy was one of the schools that sent essays to India.

“It was a pilot program designed to help teachers provide more assistance on reviewing papers,” Kwitowski says. “It was six years ago, it was a short pilot program and it ended soon thereafter.”

Kwitowski says the Indian reviewers marked papers for things like grammar and punctuation but the Idaho teachers assigned the grades. Kwitowski says the program was discontinued because of feedback from teachers and school leaders. He says parents were aware of the program but doesn’t recall if they were told about it before or after the fact.

There were a lot of things Kwitowski couldn’t recall or wouldn’t answer. And his answers differ from Safier’s documents in several ways. On how many schools were involved Kwitowski says, “Maybe half dozen or so, I can’t quite recall.” Safier’s documents say eight. On how long the program lasted, Kwitowski says two months for Idaho. Safier’s documents say nearly four months in Idaho. On how many essays were sent to India, Kwitowski says he doesn’t know. Safier’s documents say 3,072 from Idaho Virtual Academy.

For Kwitowski it’s a dead issue, even if Idaho taxpayers who helped fund it are just finding out about it. But Travis Manning was not the first Idahoan to notice the Arizona blog that named Idaho Virtual Academy in connection with the program. In September 2008 Idaho’s Public Charter School Commission wrote to the academy asking for details. The letter expresses concerns about possible violations of student privacy laws.

“lt has recently come to my attention that K-12 may have contracted with overseas grading services for review of student work. According to one source, the BlogforArizonacom, contracted graders had access to personally identifiable information about students enrolled at a number of schools around the country, including IDVA. As IDVA’s authorizer, the Public Charter School Commission is obligated to investigate any possible violation of law on the part of the charter school.” – William Goesling, then chairman of the Idaho Public Charter School Commission

The response came from an attorney and detailed why sending essays to India with student names on them was not illegal.

“While these essays may have contained the name of the individual student, l would note that student’s names are part of Directory information as is defined by IDVA and every other school district in the state that l am aware of. At no time did any individual employed by this vendor have access to any other information with regard to IDVA students including but not limited to addresses, e-mail addresses, telephone numbers, grades, attendance records, discipline records or any other matter that would traditionally be considered an educational record.” – Amy White of Anderson, Julian & Hull LLP

Because the program had been discontinued the Commission did not think any further action was necessary.   

You can read Travis Manning’s op-ed here. IDVA head of school Kelly Edginton sent a response to the Idaho Press Tribune, one of the places where Manning’s piece was published. Since the site is pay-walled, here is the IDVA response.

The Press Tribune published an op-ed recently criticizing the school I lead, the Idaho Virtual Academy (IDVA), and its curriculum and education services provider, K12 Inc.

The author makes many inaccurate claims about our instructional practices and mischaracterizes the culture of our school.

I am a life-long educator.  I’ve been with IDVA for 10 years.  I’m privileged to lead a team of teachers and educators who are committed to serving thousands of students across the state.  Parents trust our school and believe in the K12 academic program. 

Our teachers are state-certified and highly qualified.  They live and work in Idaho.  IDVA teachers have always been responsible for providing instruction, reviewing student work and assigning grades.  Our school does not use outside vendors to review or grade student work. 

Our teachers do an incredible job serving families.  I’m proud that our teachers have close personal relationships with parents in our school, something that all educators aspire to achieve.  Our school respects parent choice, and we welcome parents who want to partner with us and be actively involved in their children’s’ education. 

IDVA is a public school.  We are held to the same accountability standards as all other Idaho public schools.  In fact, as a charter school, we have additional requirements and oversight.  Most importantly, we are held accountable by the parents who choose our school.

For over a decade, IDVA has provided individualized learning programs for all types of students, including kids with special needs, high achievers and many others.   Our school’s culture has always to put students first.  - Kelly Edginton, Head of School, Idaho Virtual Academy