Tennessee legislative committee kills bill to close Tennessee Virtual Academy
NASHVILLE, Feb 13, 2013 (The Commercial Appeal - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
A state legislative committee blocked discussion Tuesday of leaked internal e-mail from the only taxpayer-funded, for-profit online school operating in Tennessee that told its teachers to delete students' bad grades.
The committee then killed a bill that would have closed the two-year-old Tennessee Virtual Academy, operated by Virginia-based K-12 Inc., at the end of the school year. Moments earlier, the panel approved a Haslam administration bill that is the state's first attempt to reign in the virtual school -- but only after stripping out of the bill a proposed enrollment cap in the school.
The Tennessee Virtual Academy, which enrolls 486 students from Shelby County and 3,149 statewide, has come under increasing fire by Democrats and some Republicans for its students' low academic performance, which state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman has called unacceptable.
On Tuesday, Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, released internal TnVA e-mails leaked to her that in December instructed its teachers to quickly delete students' progress reports for September and October, delete the grades of students on an assignment that a majority had failed, and to "please consider" counting only the final grade of a student whose earlier unit average was an F.
But when Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, tried to present the e-mails to the House Education Subcommittee, the panel's top two officers -- Reps. Mark White, R-Memphis, and Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville -- immediately cut off the discussion and called the vote that killed the bill.
In the two years since Republicans approved the law allowing for-profit companies to operate a statewide online school under contract with a single school district -- in this case, the small rural Union County Schools near Knoxville -- no K-12 executive has been called before committees in either the House or Senate to answer its critics' questions.
Stewart's bill would not have affected the online classes that several school systems across Tennessee run, including the Shelby County Schools, but it would have repealed the 2011 law allowing for-profits that was heavily lobbied by K-12 Inc.
The principal of the academy, Josh Williams, a Union County employee, told the Senate Education Committee last month that the school received "roughly $4,400 per child" last year in state taxpayer funding. But Stephen Smith of the state Department of Education said the state sent about $4,887 per pupil to Union County last year and is sending about $5,141 per pupil this year.
Several TnVA teachers, who interact with their students online, by phone and occasionally in group meetings, attended the subcommittee, along with some parents and students, and K-12 Inc.'s Tennessee lobbying team.
Summer Shelton, a TnVA 6th-grade teacher from Knoxville, said the company notified its teachers about the committee meeting but did not require them to attend -- but she drove over at her own expense to make sure its teachers' voices are heard.
"I've never seen a more dynamic curriculum that challenges students. I believe in this program. I've seen kids on the autism spectrum thrive like they did not in bricks-and-mortar schools. There's not the stress they have in a classroom. I know you're looking at test scores. We need time for improvement. I am more involved with parents than I ever could have been in a bricks-and-mortar school," Shelton told the committee.
But Stewart told the committee, "K-12 Inc. does one thing extremely well: extract money from our taxpayers. We pay $5,000 per student for a school that has no coaches, no classrooms, no buses. This is not a good deal for Tennessee. I've asked K-12 Inc repeatedly what it costs them to educate a child in Tennessee."
The Haslam bill, which now goes to the full Education Committee, would allow the state education commissioner to close the virtual school if its students are on the low-performing list for two consecutive years, but acknowledged the next list won't be issued for another two years. The original bill would have capped enrollment at 5,000, but the committee stripped that out of the bill.
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