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15 Months in Virtual Charter Hell: A Teacher's Tale

How online charter operators are shortchanging students -- and teachers.
 
 
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Photo Credit: ollyy via Shutterstock.com

 
One major phenomenon that has blossomed as part the corporatization of education in the two most recent presidential administrations is that of virtual charter schools -  schools with no mortar and brick buildings, or building of any kind.  The teachers and students communicate in virtual space.  In some cases these schools receive as much public funding per student as would a traditional public school, but without the heavy expenses for maintaining a physical plant, including light, heat and water, janitorial staff and supplies, and so on.
 
The most important single virtual charter chain is  K12, the Education Management Organization (EMO) established by former hedge fund banker Ronald Packard, whose major investors included convicted junk bond dealer Michael Milken, his borther Lowell, Andrew Tisch of Loews, and Larry Ellison of Oracle, and which was headed for a while by former Secretary of Education William Bennett.
 
You can read a fair amount at  the Wikipedia article on K12.  What is important to note is that according to  this analysis, in the 2009-2010 school year K12 had a total of 49 schools under its management with an enrollment of 65,396 students.  
 
But numbers cannot fully describe what an entity such as K12 is really like, either for the students or for the adults who work in such an institution.
 
The purpose of this diary is to point you at a post which will.
 
Anthony Cody, with whom I have worked closely on a number of educational issues over the past few years, is one of the regular bloggers for Education Week / Teacher.  Periodically he will turn his Living in Dialogue space over to others for a guest post.  My title comes from  this guest post by Darcy Bedortha, who for the 15 months of the title taught in a K12 virtual school.
 
What I want you to do is to use this post to make Bedortha's post more widely known.
 
Let me explain why.
 
Bedortha will give you the background of the company, as well as some data on how much some are profiting from this endeavor.
 
Allow me to offer a few selections from Bedortha's post, with permission of Anthony Cody, to give you a sense.  I will not in these selections bother with the relevant hot links, because ultimately I do want you to read the original.

Given the extensive needs of the students, this set up does not serve them well. Most of my contact with students was by email, through which I answered questions about everything from login issues and technology glitches to clarifying of assignments, and even that communication was only accessed by a very small percentage of students.

In addition, because students continuously enroll, no one was on the same assignment at the same time. I taught high school English. In a given day in mid-November I would grade introductory assignments, diagnostic essays and end-of-semester projects, and everything in between, for each course (this month I had 30 separate courses). I found it to be impossible to meet the learning needs of my students in that situation.

I am a firm believer in providing individuation for my students -  they do not all do exactly the same thing.  Still, my variance is within the framework of one course / prep for a class full of students.  What is being described here is something else, something where effectively each student is a separate preparation.  Further, while SOME students can be very successful in learning in a fashion that is a point connection with the teacher and little if any contact with fellow students, for most students there is a benefit to the social aspects of learning in a group.  While it is possible to achieve SOME of this in a chat room, or by exchanges on a blog, that lacks of of the spontaneity and the instant nature of exchanges among students within a classroom.

 
Note especially what Bedortha says about being unable to meet the learning needs of her students.  That is a primary responsibility of the adult teacher, and anything that interferes with that is denying that child a complete opportunity to learn.
 
Then consider this:

Teachers who work for K12 Inc. are not well compensated for all their scrambling. At my former school, teachers are paid based on the number of students on their rosters. With 225 students they are still part-time (at .75 FTE), for which the pay is $31,500 a year. With 226 students they become full time employees, and will then be paid $42,000. Some full-time teachers now carry loads of well over 300 students. Even considering other expenses (but noting that these schools have no building or transportation costs), it is clear to me that K12 is generating considerable profits from the student/teacher ratio and compensation scheme.

I have NEVER had 225 students. The most I ever had was 198.  And when I began, albeit with a Masters + 30 additional credits, in 1995-96, I was paid 35,000/year.   Thus K12 teachers are clearly underpaid for the responsibility of teaching that many students.

 
Allow me to offer one more selection:  

I believe K12 Inc. targets poor communities and economically struggling regions; they are easily influenced because they are desperately seeking alternatives to devastatingly under-funded schools. These financially strapped schools are being further bled by the exodus of students who are lured by what I now see are empty promises of marketing experts at K12 Inc. It is a vicious cycle in which, as far as I can see, no one but the corporate profiteers are winning, and that is no wonder to me: K12 Inc. has worked closely with the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has lobbied extensively for draft legislation to expand virtual education in 39 states or territories, potentially further crippling the financial status of public schools whose funds they siphon.

By now, increasing numbers of Americans have learned of the damage done by ALEC, whether it is Stand Your Ground laws in Florida or stripping pensions from public workers in Wisconsin or any of the other initiatives that are destroying the fabric of American society.

 
Since K12 - like many similar operators - targets communities of color and/or poverty, the dispossessed and disempowered, they depend on not facing the fierce opposition they would encounter were they seeking to impose this on communities full of white middle class families.  
 
Oh, and with the profits they pocket they send their own children to brick and mortar elite schools that provide a more meaningful education, where the teachers have reasonable numbers of students to teach, where the curricula and materials and strategies they impose while making their profits are no where to be seen - not for "their" kids, only for the kids of those "other folks" - in Lisa Delpit's phrase, "Other People's Children."
 
Bedortha has done this nation a favor in writing her guest post, as has Anthony Cody by putting it up.  I am now, at Anthony's request, trying to magnify the reach of this important article by exploring it here and urging others to read it.
 
You can help in that process if you agree with me on the importance of Bedortha's piece by keeping this diary visible, perhaps by tweeting it or emailing friends.
 
At a minimum, make sure people you know read the original.
 
We have an opportunity to push back at the profiteers who are destroying the public commons, starting with the public schools.
 
We have a chance to save a democratic republic in which public education is seen as a social responsibility, not a barrier to people profiting at the public teat regardless of the impact upon those affected by such schools.  Our children should be a treasure to the nation, not profit centers for the greedy.
 
Peace?