Virtual School Operator K-12 Hits Snag In Tennessee Expansion

K-12 students end up getting most of their instruction online, though the youngest grades spend less time in front of a computer. Credit: K-12 via Facebook

K-12 students end up getting most of their instruction online, though the youngest grades spend less time in front of a computer. Credit: K-12 via Facebook

A private, for-profit company that started the first statewide cyber school in Tennessee is having trouble getting approval for a second.

Tennessee Cyber Academy would be operated by K-12 Inc. and was supposed to begin classes Monday. But a letter from the state’s Department of Education says the school’s application was woefully incomplete, lacking any specifics about student/teacher ratios, length of school days or even how it would enforce attendance policies.

“We appreciate your desire to provide additional educational opportunities to students,” writes deputy commissioner Kathleen Airhart. “However, we remain concerned about your ability to start and operate this school for the 2013-14 school year.”

K-12 currently operates the Tennessee Virtual Academy, which goes through 8th grade. The new school would have started out as K-10 and eventually go through 12th grade.

The Tennessee Virtual Academy has put up sub-par results, ending up in the bottom 11 percent of schools in the state. K-12 officials blame students who enter mid-year, though they do advertise throughout the year that students can enroll anytime. The state legislature passed a law that caps enrollment if the virtual school continues to struggle.

The school expanded rapidly, taking on more than 3,000 students from across the state in the most recent school year. Most of the students come from Nashville and Memphis, even though Tennessee Virtual Academy is part of the small, rural Union County school system outside of Knoxville.

Incentive To Expand

K-12 offers the host system a four percent cut of the state funds it gets for each student. That’s money the district can put back into its own brick-and-mortar operation. It gave the same deal to neighboring Campbell County Schools to host the Tennessee Cyber Academy.

“I think school systems are always looking for revenue sources,” Campbell County assistant superintendent Larry Nidiffer said.

If the new cyber school doesn’t get off the ground this week, Nidiffer says it may be next school year before it gets going. The Campbell County School Board approved the partnership in June.

Tennessee Cyber Academy had planned recruiting events around the state, including one near Nashville later this month.

The delay is a setback to K-12’s plans to expand in Tennessee, but the Virginia-based company still has its cheerleaders. Rep. Dennis Powers is a Republican who represents both Union and Campbell counties in the General Assembly.

“If we can provide a better education at the same amount of money or for the same education opportunities, in the free market system, I think it’s a great idea,” Powers told WPLN.

He made his comments while at the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) annual meeting in Chicago, where he said expanding virtual education was a topic of a panel discussion. Officials with K-12 were part of the meeting.

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