Editor’s note: Trevor Aaronson is with the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.
Florida’s Department of Education has launched an investigation of K12, the nation’s largest online educator, over allegations the company uses uncertified teachers and asked employees to help cover up the practice.
K12 officials told certified teachers to sign class rosters that included students they hadn’t taught, according to documents that are part of the investigation.
In one case, a K12 manager instructed a certified teacher to sign a class roster of more than 100 students. She only recognized seven names on that list.
“I cannot sign off on students who are not my actual students,” K12 teacher Amy Capelle wrote to her supervisor. “It is not ethical to submit records to the district that are inaccurate.”
The documents suggest K12 may be using uncertified teachers in violation of state law.
In 2009, K12 asked Seminole County Public Schools if it could use uncertified teachers in some of its online classes. That uncertified teacher would be overseen by a so-called “teacher of record” — a certified teacher.
Seminole County Public Schools consulted with the Florida Department of Education and then denied the request, citing state law requiring certified teachers.
The Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General is now looking into whether K12 violated state law by using teachers of record, even after education officials warned the company it can’t.
State investigators confirmed the probe to FCIR/StateImpact Florida, but declined to discuss it.
K12 officials would not agree to an interview. In a statement, spokesman Jeff Kwitowski said the company is working closely with investigators.
“We do not believe the allegations against K12 regarding teacher certification are accurate,” he wrote.
“K12’s policy is to follow teacher certification requirements. K12 teachers assigned to teach students in Florida are state certified.
“Because K12 is continuing to work with state officials on this matter, further comment would be inappropriate.”
Sign Here, Please
K12 operates in 43 Florida school districts, including in Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, Orange and Duval counties. The company teaches everything from art to algebra to students in kindergarten through high school.
According to K12’s website, students enjoy “state-certified teachers, with a parent or other responsible adult in the role of ‘Learning Coach.’ ”
The state investigation started in January, when a former K12 employee forwarded a series of e-mails to Seminole County schools officials.
In one email, K12’s Florida project manager asked teachers to sign off on having taught students they may have never encountered.
“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,” K12’s Samantha Gilormini wrote on Feb. 15, 2011.
Gilormini asked K12 teacher Capelle, whose emails helped spark the investigation, to sign off on a list of 112 students. Of the 112, she’d taught seven of the students, and refused to sign.
“I am happy to sign for the seven Seminole students who are my students, but I cannot sign as the teacher of record for students who I do not know,” Capelle wrote.
Since Capelle didn’t sign off the students, K12 manager Gila Tuchman signed in her place and submitted the records to Seminole County Public Schools, certifying that Capelle had taught students she in fact had not.
‘Far Beyond the Borders of Seminole County’
After reading these emails, Seminole County officials followed up with a survey of parents whose kids were enrolled in K12 classes. Parents were given a list of teachers who reportedly instructed their children.
More than one-third of parents said the listed teacher did not teach their child.
Only 36 percent of parents said their child’s teacher was the one K12 had listed. The rest could not be reached or said they couldn’t remember.
The survey and emails prompted Seminole County officials to request that the Department of Education investigate. They warned the state that the problems they uncovered with K12 may be widespread.
“We have cause for concern over the use of uncertified teachers by K12, LLC,” they wrote. “Since K12 uses the same teachers across the state in virtual instruction programs, this issue may reach far beyond the borders of Seminole County.”
Other Florida districts have found problems when officials checked whether certified teachers taught K12 courses.
Leon County Schools spokesman Chris Petley said his district has removed students from K12 courses that were taught by teachers who were either not certified in Florida or not certified in the course subject.
“If the teacher is not both,” Petley said of certifications, “we move them out of there.”
Leon County Schools and other Florida public school districts may not be able to detect the problems that Seminole officials discovered.
That’s because Seminole County requires virtual school teachers to sign off on class rosters, certifying they actually taught those students.
Profits And Controversy
K12 has a financial incentive to skirt Florida’s law requiring the use of certified teachers. Simply, K12 can pay uncertified teachers less than certified teachers while collecting the same amount per student from state public school districts, increasing profits for shareholders.
Founded in 2000 by William Bennett, a former U.S. education secretary under President Ronald Reagan, K12 is an $864 million publicly traded company whose stock price has more than doubled in the last year.
In recent years, K12 has increased profits while student performance has suffered, raising questions about whether the for-profit virtual schools provider is making money at the expense of academics.
K12 has drawn criticism nationwide.
In Arizona, school officials worry the online courses are not as rigorous as traditional schools. An Arizona Republic investigation found that a high percentage of students were dropping out of K12 and the state’s other online schools.
The Georgia Department of Education has threatened to end K12’s virtual program if the company does not reduce its student-to-teacher ratio.
In Tennessee, data showed K12’s student performance ranked near the bottom of state schools.
A July 2012 study by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado found that students at K12 schools fell further behind in reading and math scores than pupils in traditional schools.
K12 officials say online education isn’t for everyone, but should remain an option for students.