Trevor Aaronson is co-director of the Florida Center for
Investigative Reporting and author of the book The Terror Factory:
Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism. He has won more than
two dozen national and regional journalism awards, including the Molly
Prize, the international Data Journalism Award and the John Jay
College/H.F. Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting
A 2009 recording shows online educator K12 had difficulty hiring properly certified teachers in Florida. A draft state investigation found no evidence the company used teachers who were not Florida-certified, but used three teachers who were not subject certified.
State law requires teachers are certified in their subject area and by the state.
So when a K12 teacher saw her name listed on company documents as teaching Florida classes she had not taught, she asked her managers about it.
During a November 2009 conference call, the managers called it a mistake they were fixing. The recording was provided by a source and none of the participants were in states which require permission to record a phone call.
Allison Cleveland, K12’s vice president of school management and services, tried to assuage concerns that teacher certifications were used without that teacher’s knowledge.
“Well I think the important thing about Florida – you are not actually teaching in Florida,” she said on the tape. “You have not had any contact with students in Florida. I mean your name being on that list was nothing but a mistake. And, it took us a couple of days to get to the bottom of that…you know, and I feel like we’ve been able to resolve it.”
Company managers held a series of phone calls with staff to explain the situation, including admitting that a teacher’s name showed up on a roster of Florida teachers by mistake.
The phone call was recorded and provided to the Florida Department of Education Office of Inspector General as part of an investigation into whether K12 used properly certified teachers in Seminole County.
K12 is the nation's largest online education company and serves Florida students in 43 school districts.
The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida have obtained internal emails and a recording of a company meeting that provide new insight into allegations that K12 Inc., the nation’s largest online education company, uses teachers in Florida who do not have all of the required state certifications.
Department of Education investigators did not find teachers without state certification, as a complaint filed by the Seminole County School District had claimed. But the investigators did find teachers without necessary subject certifications. The draft report attributed the problem to sloppy paperwork at Virginia-based K12, rather than intent to skirt the law.
If that’s true, then paperwork for Florida classes has been a problem at K12 since 2009, according to the internal emails and the recording of a company meeting.
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 Florida law, teachers must pass three exams to earn state certification as well as be certified for the subject and grades they teach. The state investigation, sparked by a complaint from the Seminole County School District, found at least three middle-school K12 teachers in Seminole County who did not have proper subject certification. The investigation, however, did not find teachers without general certification, which was among the allegations in the original complaint from Seminole County.
In Florida, school districts must notify parents if a teacher is not subject-certified. Teachers then have three years to earn certification before the school district is penalized. Seminole County schools said they had no evidence that parents of K12 students were notified that the teachers did not have subject certification.
K12 has refunded the Seminole County school district the $12,800 cost for the 16 courses taught by teachers without subject certification.
A series of emails led Seminole County school officials to question K12's teachers.
Below is the draft report from the Florida Department of Education inspector general. The agency was asked to investigate whether K12, Inc. was using properly certified teachers in Seminole County.
The report finds no evidence that the company used teachers lacking Florida certification. But the report found the company did use three teachers who were not certified for the subject they were teaching.
Both K12 and the Seminole County schools district have disputed the report (read their responses here). the inspector general will consider those responses and could alter the conclusions or recommendations before issuing a final report.
U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat, has asked the U.S. Department of Education to investigate K12.
U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, has asked the U.S. Department of Education to investigate K12, a publicly traded online education provider that operates in 42 Florida school districts, including in Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, Orange and Duval counties.
“Given the seriousness of the allegation and their potentially damaging effects on Florida students enrolled in the program, I respectfully request a federal investigation of this matter,” Brown wrote.
A screenshot of the Florida Virtual Academy website. The schools are affiliated with K12, Inc. the Florida Department of Education is investigating whether the company used improperly certified teachers in Seminole County.
Editor’s note: Trevor Aaronson is a reporter with the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.
Thousands of Florida students already are taking classes from Virginia-based K12, Inc, the nation’s largest online education company.
Students in traditional schools, in charter schools and who are homeschooled can already take K12 classes in 42 county school districts.
Now, the company is trying to set up charter schools across the state. But these aren’t your traditional charter schools — they’re online schools where students never set foot in a building.
School officials across Florida are asking, “Why?”
“I’m not sure what need it would fill,” said Judi Zanetti, chairwoman of the Marion County School board.
K12 says online charters are just one more way to customize education for students. The schools allow students to learn at their own pace and take classes on their schedule.
But school district officials and researchers worry the K12 may be trying to avoid scrutiny from local educators.
K12 is the nation's largest online education company and served Florida students in 43 school districts.
Student-teacher ratios at K12, the nation’s largest online educator, are nearly twice as high as Florida’s state-run virtual school, according to internal company documents obtained by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida.
A high school teacher working for K12 may have as many as 275 students, compared to Florida Virtual School, which has a maximum class size of 150.
“The concept of one teacher managing 275 or 300 students — it just doesn’t make sense,” said Luis Huerta, a Columbia University education professor who studies online education. “It’s hard to believe one person could do that. You have teacher-pupil ratios that are ten times what it would be in a traditional school.”
According to company documents, K12 provides better student-teacher ratios to schools that pay more per student, though even the best ratios are higher than the state-run competitor’s.
The publicly traded K12 operates in 43 Florida school districts, including in Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, Orange and Duval counties, with students ranging in education level from kindergarten to high school.
Seminole County schools surveyed parents to see if they recognized the teacher reported by K12.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated from the version originally published.
Seminole County teacher Amy Capelle had to make a decision.
Her supervisor at the nation’s largest online school, K12, asked her to sign a roster saying she’d taught 112 kids.
She’d only taught seven.
“If you see your name next to a student that might not be yours, it’s because you are qualified to teach that subject, and we needed to put your name there,” wrote K12 supervisor Samantha Gilormini in an e-mail.
Capelle refused, and now state officials are investigating whether K12 used improperly certified teachers and asked employees to cover it up.
Seminole County officials say this problem may reach far beyond their borders.
But many Florida school districts have no way to know whether K12 students are actually being taught by properly certified teachers, according to a review by StateImpact Florida and Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.
At that time, the Virginia-based online educator launched an internal investigation. But K12, a publicly traded company, did not disclose the state investigation to its investors.
Under U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission regulations, publicly traded companies must disclose what is known as material information — any information that would affect a reasonable investor’s decision to buy, sell or hold a stock. Publicly traded companies notify investors of changes or outside developments, such as investigations or lawsuits, through an SEC public disclosure document known as a Form 8-K.