The for-profit online charter school industry is the target of an investigation by California Attorney General Kamala Harris, according to a filing by K12 Inc., the country's largest online charter management company.
K12 received a subpoena in late September from the Bureau of Children’s Justice at the California Attorney General's office, the company said in its quarterly earnings report. The subpoena, K12 said, was part of an industry-wide investigation. There are 14,500 students enrolled in virtual schools run by K12 Inc., up from just 650 in 2002.
The California Attorney General's office said it could not comment on ongoing investigations.
Virtual charter schools are public schools that exist entirely online: Taxpayer dollars pay for students in kindergarten through 12th grade to take classes from home, communicating with their teachers over the internet. About two-thirds of the country's virtual charters are run by for-profit companies like K12, which hire teachers and management and provide the school's curriculum and software.
A scathing report last week from Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that online charter schools have an “overwhelming negative impact” on students' learning compared to traditional brick-and-mortar schools.
Over the course of a school year, the CREDO study said, virtual school students lost out on the equivalent of 180 days of learning in math and 72 days reading. The average length of a school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, is 180.4 days.
The Walton Family Foundation, which has supported the growth of charter schools nationwide, urged regulators to pay closer attention to online schools in the wake of the study. "Policymakers cannot ignore students who are lagging a full year behind their peers in math and nearly a half a school year in reading," representatives of the foundation said in a statement. "Policymakers should intervene to ensue that children are well served, and authorizers should not enable such low-quality schools to continue operating unchecked.”
In a statement, K12 said the study’s methodology, which compared online students to “virtual twins” at brick-and-mortar schools, was flawed, ignoring key factors that influence student achievement and made it impossible to directly compare the two groups. The company also said that its students are generally more at-risk, more economically disadvantaged, and more likely to enter online charters after having struggled or failed in traditional schools.
A separate report earlier this year by the left-leaning In the Public Interest, which looked specifically at virtual schools in California managed by K12, highlighted lax governance and potential self-dealing by the state's 11 different California Virtual Academies.
CAVA schools, which have a graduation rate of 36%, are run by small nonprofit boards that meet briefly and infrequently, the report said, and are often overseen by school districts that have just a handful of children. A district of 30 students — a single, quaint country schoolhouse with six teachers and a principal who also serves as the district’s superintendent — authorizes CAVA’s 3,000-student San Diego school.