Gennifer Hirata, 10 pictured with her mother, Michele and her brother,… (Dayna Smith/For The Washington…)
A Virginia company leading a national movement to replace classrooms with computers — in which children as young as 5 can learn at home at taxpayer expense — is facing a backlash from critics who are questioning its funding, quality and oversight.
K12 Inc. of Herndon has become the country’s largest provider of full-time public virtual schools, upending the traditional American notion that learning occurs in a schoolhouse where students share the experience. In K12’s virtual schools, learning is largely solitary, with lessons delivered online to a child who progresses at her own pace.
Conceived as a way to teach a small segment of the home-schooled and others who need flexible schooling, virtual education has evolved into an alternative to traditional public schools for an increasingly wide range of students — high achievers, strugglers, dropouts, teenage parents and victims of bullying among them.
“For many kids, the local school doesn’t work,” said Ronald J. Packard, chief executive and founder of K12. “And now, technology allows us to give that child a choice. It’s about educational liberty.”
Packard and other education entrepreneurs say they are harnessing technology to deliver quality education to any child, regardless of Zip code.
It’s an appealing proposition, and one that has attracted support in state legislatures, including Virginia’s. But in one of the most hard-fought quarters of public policy, a rising chorus of critics argues that full-time virtual learning doesn’t effectively educate children.
“Kindergarten kids learning in front of a monitor — that’s just wrong,” said Maryelen Calderwood, an elected school committee member in Greenfield, Mass., who unsuccessfully tried to stop K12 from contracting with her community to create New England’s first virtual public school last year. “It’s absolutely astounding how people can accept this so easily.”
People on both sides agree that the structure providing public education is not designed to handle virtual schools. How, for example, do you pay for a school that floats in cyberspace when education funding formulas are rooted in the geography of property taxes? How do you oversee the quality of a virtual education?
“There’s a total mismatch,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, who served on K12’s board of directors until 2007. “We’ve got a 19th-century edifice trying to house a 21st-century system.”
Despite questions, full-time virtual schools are proliferating.
In the past two years, more than a dozen states have passed laws and removed obstacles to encourage virtual schools. And providers of virtual education have been making their case in statehouses around the country.
K12 has hired lobbyists from Boise to Boston and backed political candidates who support school choice in general and virtual education in particular. From 2004 to 2010, K12 gave about $500,000 in direct contributions to state politicians across the country, with three-quarters going to Republicans, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
“We understand the politics of education pretty well,” Packard told investors recently.
K12’s push into New England illustrates its skill. In 2009, the company began exploring the potential for opening a virtual school in Massachusetts in partnership with the rural Greenfield school district.
But Massachusetts education officials halted the plan, saying Greenfield had no legal authority to create a statewide school. So Greenfield and K12 turned to legislators, with the company spending about $200,000 on Beacon Hill lobbyists.
State Rep. Martha “Marty” Walz, a Boston Democrat, wrote legislation that allowed Greenfield to open the Massachusetts Virtual Academy in 2010. She acknowledged that the language was imperfect and didn’t address issues of funding or oversight but said she couldn’t wait to craft a comprehensive plan.
“You do what you need to do sometimes to get the ball rolling,” said Walz, who accepted at least $2,600 in campaign contributions from K12, its executives or its lobbyists since 2008, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
That scenario is repeating nationwide as K12 and its allies seek to expand virtual education.
About 250,000 students are enrolled in full-time public virtual schools in 30 states, according to Susan Patrick of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a trade association. Although that’s just a fraction of the country’s 50 million schoolchildren, the numbers are growing fast, Patrick said.
K12 teaches about two out of every five students in full-time online schools. Its next largest competitor is Baltimore-based Connections Education, which was recently acquired by Pearson, the mammoth British textbook publisher. The rest of the industry consists of smaller operators and some nonprofit virtual schools.
Seizing an opportunity