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Report: Florida Investigating K12 Inc. for Using Noncertified Teachers

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UPDATED with official response from K12 Inc.

The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida reported today that Florida's Department of Education is investigating whether online education company K12 Inc. used noncertified teachers in violation of state law, and covered it up by asking teachers to sign class rosters of students they didn't teach.

The investigation revolves around Seminole County, Florida, and its Seminole Virtual Instruction program, provided by K12 Inc., a for-profit company that is the nation's largest virtual school provider. A series of internal emails sent to Seminole County by a former K12 Inc. employee suggest the company tried to skirt state teacher certification rules to use less-qualified—and, in turn, less-compensated—teachers, according to the report, by John O'Connor and Trevor Aaronson. Those emails sparked the state's investigation, the report said.

In a statement to O'Connor and Aaronson, K12 Inc. spokesman Jeff Kwitowski denied the allegations but would not comment further. "K12 teachers assigned to teach students in Florida are state certified," he said. K12 Inc. stock, which trades on the New York Stock Exchange, dropped 13 percent today, down to $20.31.

State officials confirmed the investigation, but offered no additional comments to the reporters.

The controversy dates back to 2009, when Seminole County chose K12 Inc. as its virtual education provider. At the time, K12 Inc., facing a teacher shortage, asked if it could use noncertified teachers, as long as certified teachers signed off on them, according to a document from Seminole schools to the Florida education department that includes the K12 Inc. internal emails. After looking into the issue, Seminole County told K12 Inc. that would not be permitted.

A few months later, internal K12 Inc. emails show an attempt to institute that policy anyway on class rosters it is required to report to the state department of education. Seminole County was notified and told K12 Inc. that those practices were not allowed. "The company proposed it would tighten up its practices," the document said.

In January of this year, emails from February 2011 forwarded to Seminole County schools suggest that K12 Inc. employees told teachers to sign class rosters of students they did not teach in order to satisfy state reporting requirements for enrollment and fulltime employment.

In an email, Samantha Gilormini, a project manager for Florida at K12 Inc., asks teachers to sign attached class rosters. The email reads:

"Some teachers may notice a few extra students on their class rolls and that is due to certification issues. In the virtual setting any teacher can teach the students the subjects but the districts like to have certified teachers in each subject. So if you see your name next to a student that might not be yours it's because you were qualified to teach that subject and we needed to put your name there."

One teacher, Amy Capelle, responded, "I cannot sign off on students who are not my actual students." Capelle told Seminole County schools that she taught only seven of the 112 students listed on the class roster she was asked to sign.

In an email to Seminole County a couple weeks later, Gilormini said that two teachers, including Capelle, "were not available to sign their class roll," and that another teacher signed for them.

The investigation will focus on whether the company is using noncertified teachers, which would violate state law, and attempting to cover it up through the reporting process, the report explains.

In an official response released by the company this afternoon, K12 Inc. again questioned the accuracy of the allegations, but also went on the defensive.

The response said Seminole County officials submitted documents and emails to the state education department "without any prior communication regarding them with K12." After being notified of the investigation, the company launched its own internal investigation led by "a respected former U.S. Attorney." The company would not comment on the "substance" of the investigation but noted: "Conclusions prior to the completion of that work are premature."

I also just received a news release from the Florida Virtual School, a statewide public online school district, reminding the public that it is not affiliated with K12 Inc.'s Florida Virtual Academy. Apparently reporters have been confusing the names. (Not this one—I've mentioned that Florida Virtual School filed a trademark infringement suit against K12 for that same reason; in July a judge dismissed the case in favor of K12 Inc.)

Florida officials are wondering whether this practice is used among other K12 Inc.-managed schools. In the document sent to the state education department, Seminole officials worried the practice could be going on in other districts.

"Since K12 uses the same teachers across the state in virtual instruction programs, this issue may reach far beyond the borders of Seminole County," they wrote.

Each district in Florida is required to offer a virtual education program and select a provider from a state-approved list. There are 43 that selected K12 Inc. State funds are used to pay K12 Inc. for its management contract.

The last couple weeks have been trying for virtual schools, particularly K12 Inc.

In Tennessee, which passed a virtual education bill just last year, state education commissioner Kevin Huffman told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that student performance at the K12 Inc.-managed Tennessee Virtual Academy was "demonstrably poor." Through the Union County schools system, where the academy is under contract, K12 Inc. was paid $5 million to manage the school of 3,000 students, the Free Press reported.

On Sept. 7, the Portland Press-Herald in Maine published a lengthy report on the political dealings that led to virtual education in the state. Two key figures in that report are Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who heads the Foundation for Excellence in Education, and his education aide, Patricia Levesque, who runs a private firm that lobbies for online education companies in Florida.

According to the report, which is based on thousands of emails obtained through a public-records request, Levesque and Bush's foundation—as well as the American Legislative Exchange Council, of which K12 Inc. and Connections Academy, the second-largest online education provider, are members—were integral in Maine education commissioner Stephen Bowen's work to craft and pass the state's virtual education law.

All of this comes on the heals of a recent report by the National Education Policy Center, a frequent combatant of K12 Inc., showing the companies' students perform worse and drop out more frequently than students in brick-and-mortar schools. The company's stock price also dropped that day.

K12 Inc. counters most of its criticism by pointing out that it gives students and parents school choice options and that it enrolls mostly under-performing students who require extensive work to improve. But the political scrutiny that follows it—surely driven by its for-profit status and the fact that it's publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange—seems to be mounting.

On Thursday, the company will release its fiscal year 2012 financial results.

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