Virtual school board treading lightly with K12
GREENFIELD — With Greenfield’s virtual school under new leadership come Monday, a five-member board of trustees will call the shots instead of the Greenfield School Committee. So, what does that mean for its future with for-profit education provider K12?
At least initially, the cyber school will continue contracting with the Virginia-based company for curriculum services, including teachers, program administrators, curriculum, online learning tools and physical course materials. The school currently teaches 470 students across the state — a dozen from Greenfield attend for free — but that number could increase up to 750 this year.
However, the virtual school board won’t be diving headfirst into a long-term deal with K12, a company that’s received mixed grades across the country.
Ed Berlin, a Greenfield resident who has become the unofficial leader of the virtual school trustees, said the cyber school won’t lock itself into another three-year contract with the company. The school’s contract with K12 expires on Sunday, so the parties will need to sign a new one. Berlin said it will be important to have some provision that would allow the school the option to pull out of the arrangement.
K12 has been lauded by some local school officials, parents and students for its “mastery-based curriculum,” which allows students to work at their own pace with online and physical course materials and requires them to pass tests before they can move on to the next academic topic. Christina Powell, a virtual school parent from Reading and member of the new board of trustees, praised the curriculum during her trustee interview.
At the same time, the company has faced national criticism from some media outlets, state politicians and a pair of Greenfield school board members. The critics point to low test scores at virtual schools across the country and a dislike of the company’s profiting on public education.
Superintendent Susan Hollins and other school board members have always argued that most criticisms about the company don’t apply in Greenfield — since local administrators run the school themselves. Berlin also has this mindset.
“A lot of complaints about K12 were generated from those schools that K12 was operating,” he said. “K12 is not operating our school. We are. They’re providing the curriculum.”
That being said, Berlin said the trustees are “willing and open to look at other ideas” and will be watching K12 and students’ academic performance closely in the months to come. He’ll also want to ensure that Greenfield brick-and-mortar students continue receiving free online elective courses, as the contract currently allows.
The state will be watching, too. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said the virtual school board needs to send a draft contract with K12 for state approval by Aug. 1.
“We are aware of concerns expressed about K12 in other states,” said state spokesman JC Considine. “We judge each school based on its experience here in Massachusetts. And more importantly, we and the statute puts a premium on the oversight by the school’s board of trustees.”
Greenfield money to K12
Greenfield has been with K12 since the beginning — engaging in discussions with the company years before the first Massachusetts Virtual Academy classes were taught here in 2010.
A large majority of the money that entered the school’s revolving fund in its first two years — paid for by non-Greenfield students’ host districts, similar to the School Choice model — went to K12: $1.07 million in 2011 (82.3 percent) and $2 million in 2012 (88.6 percent).
It’s this issue that has drawn criticism from some school board members, although Superintendent Susan Hollins argues that the school department routinely pays private companies for educational materials.
“We mostly do not write our texts or curriculum materials — so all of this is purchased from private, for-profit companies,” Hollins told The Recorder in April. “We do not build our computers or printers. ... We do not write our own software for assessment services or curriculum support services.”
“The difference I think with the virtual school is that one company is providing the majority of the curriculum, software, technology equipment and some services for the one school,” she said.
K12’s biggest charge, according to this year’s draft budget, is $582,000 for “curriculum delivery,” which spokesman Jeff Kwitowski said includes online courses, assessments, planning and progress tools for core subjects and electives.
Greenfield also pays the company $464,500 for instructional materials — textbooks, multimedia teaching tools and other offline materials — said Kwitowski.
K12 charges $80,000 for a program administrator, $313,500 for K12-employed teachers (including teacher benefits) and $148,000 for computers and software for teachers and students.
The company charges two fees: a 7 percent technology fee (about $160,000 this year) and a 15 percent management services fee (about $345,000).
Greenfield administrators have said that all administrative tasks are handled internally and not contracted to K12.
Still, Greenfield has been asked to pay K12’s 15 percent management services fee, which Kwitowski said typically pays for things like educational program consulting and teacher development, business administration, student records maintenance, admission/enrollment and school community activities.
The contract allowed Greenfield to prioritize other expenses first, and so it has never been able to fully pay these two fees, said Greenfield school officials and Kwitowski. K12 swallowed a $640,000 loss during the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years.