Few education organizations are receiving as much scrutiny these days as K12 Inc., a major for-profit provider of virtual education with a presence in states across the country.
The company is now the subject of a pair of dueling papers produced by researchers who draw very different conclusions about K12's academic record and business model.
Last year, Gary Miron of Western Michigan University, who has conducted extensive research on for-profit and nonprofit school charter operators, published a report that found that just 28 percent of K12 schools reported meeting adequate yearly progress benchmarks in 2010-2011. His report was issued by the National Education Policy Center, a research center that has published numerous analyses criticizing or scrutinizing charter schools.
The NEPC considers part of its mission to conduct critical reviews of reports produced by think tanks. But this week, Matthew Chingos, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy, released his own critique of Miron's report, labeled a "check the facts" document by Education Next, where it is being published.
Miron's report found that K12's AYP performance was comparable to the relatively poor showing of other full-time virtual schools operated by private education management organizations, but that it lags well below the AYP performance of overall public schools, 52 percent of which met that mark. In addition, of the K12 schools that were assigned performance rankings by states and were evaluated in Miron's report, only a fraction had ratings that indicated satisfactory academic progress.
His report also examines K12's revenues and spending. He found that they receive an average of $7,393 in public revenue per pupil, less than what charter schools in the same states overall receive, $9,258 per child, and significantly less than traditional district schools, at $11,708 per student. Not surprisingly, K12 spends little or nothing on facilities and maintenance, Miron wrote. It spends more on instruction and on administrative costs than comparison schools, and less on teacher and administrator salaries and benefits. It spends only a third of what traditional public districts do on instruction for special education, though the report notes that K12's special-needs population is increasing, according to his analysis.
(K12 issued a statement at the time criticizing Miron's findings as misleading. The company said students enter K12 with a variety of educational needs, and that many arrive far behind grade level after having struggled in traditional school systems. K12 also said that at some of the schools analyzed in the report, the company was not responsible for managing the school but only for a portion of the duties there, such as providing curriculum.)
In his critique, Chingos says the measures used by Miron to judge K12, including AYP and graduation rates, are at best "rough proxies" for student performance, and misleading. He also says the report should not have compared K12 students' performance with that of all students in a state, but rather measured the virtual schools' performance against those of schools in the students' neighborhoods—those that they otherwise might have attended.
"Parents don't choose between a virtual school and any school in the state, but rather between a virtual school and the schools in the vicinity of where they live," Chingos writes.
Chingos also says Miron's comparisons of finances between K12 and traditional public schools can be skewed by a number of factors, including different states' school finance formulas.
"Parents need to have information on which to base decisions about what school is best for their child," virtual or not, Chingos adds. "It is simply not possible to make these sorts of decisions with the data in the NEPC report."
The NEPC has come back at Chingo's critique with its own critique. Miron offered a separate response in an email to Education Week, pointing out that his original report acknowledged the limitations of the academic measures he used, and of the financial information he collected, which is based on federal data.
He also says a comparison of K12 students with local districts schools does not make sense, because K12, like many other full-time virtual schools, recruits students statewide. Doing what Chingos suggests would be costly, and unrealistic, given K12's structure and population it serves, he said.
"Along with other colleagues at NEPC who are studying virtual schooling, I recognize that virtual school is going to be a growing and increasingly important component of our education systems," Miron told Education Week. While there are "reasons to be excited about the future" he added, "we also believe that the future of virtual schooling is too important to leave up to the for-profit companies to decide how this is going to work."