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Report: Online Schools Use Tax Dollars to Gain Students

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Parents are accustomed to being advertising targets for companies wanting to sell clothes, toys and activities for their children, but a new USA Today report shows that parents increasingly are being targeted as "online education consumers" for their children—by businsses using taxpayer dollars.

Writer Greg Toppo reports that "10 of the largest for-profit operators have spent an estimated $94.4 million on ads since 2007. The largest, Virginia-based K12 Inc., has spent about $21.5 million in just the first eight months of 2012."

It's not just the parents who are getting the ad messages. Kids are clearly being targeted, too. Toppo points out that Herndon, Va.-based K12 Inc. "has spent an estimated $631,600 to advertise on Nickelodeon, $601,600 on The Cartoon Network and $671,400 on MeetMe.com, a social networking site popular with teens. It also dropped $3,000 on VampireFreaks.com, which calls itself 'the Web's largest community for dark alternative culture.'"

K12 Inc., the country's largest provider of K-12 virtual schooling, contracts with local school districts, which use state funds to pay the company to manage virtual schools. Education Week's Jason Tomassini writes that, "The company has been both a benefactor and a controversial entity of the virtual schools movement that is gaining steam as technology and personalized learning becomes more accepted in schools, but is facing questions about its accountability."

In September, Tomassini covered the state of Florida's investigation into K12 on allegations that it used non-certified teachers in violation of state law and covered it up by asking teachers to sign class rosters of students they didn't teach.

K12 is not the only virtual school standing in line to influence parents as decision makers for their children's education, but it has become the highest-profile one and, as a publicly traded company, it must disclose financials.

Toppo interviewed Kevin Welner, a University of Colorado professor who tracks virtual schools. The professor "estimated that K12 is on pace this year to spend about $340 per student on advertising, or about 5.2 percent of its per-pupil public expenditures."

Do you think parents understand how virtual schools are trying to influence them—and their children—to "buy" online education?

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