Less than two weeks before this school year started, Christy Painter learned that her daughter, Lilly, might not start seventh grade as planned at the Tennessee Virtual Academy (TNVA), a full-day online school for kindergarten through eighth grade.

“She’d already been accepted. We’d received all of her materials, all of her books,” said Painter, of Franklin, Tenn.

But due to three years of dismal test scores, the school was prohibited from taking on new students under a directive from then-state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.

Huffman gave his order last July to the school’s operators in Union County, north of Knoxville, but later compromised. About 620 students, including Lilly, were allowed to start the school year, with the caveat that the school would be closed at the end of the school year if its scores don’t significantly increase by then.

Now the threat of closure is more imminent for the 1,200-student school. The Tennessee Virtual Schools Act, which allows the school to exist, expires at the end of the school year unless legislators extend it.

The House Education administration and planning subcommittee is scheduled to open legislative debate on the matter on Tuesday with a bill that would extend the Virtual School Act through June 30, 2019. The proposal was introduced by Rep. Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville) and Sen. Delores Gresham (R-Somerville), the same pair who introduced the original Virtual School Act legislation in 2011. That legislation was based on a model bill written by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a free-market think tank.

Gresham also has introduced legislation to ensure that virtual schools with three consecutive years of low scores automatically will be closed.

Students and parents say they love the flexibility of the Tennessee Virtual Academy, which uses online curriculum and tests and offers support from state-certified teachers. Hundreds of supporters traveled to the state Capitol last month to lobby for their school.

However, low test scores are working against the school’s future, as well as concerns over its operator, K12 Inc., a Virginia-based for-profit company with schools across the country.

“Let me be clear,” wrote Rep. Joe Pitts (D-Clarksville) in an editorial in The (Clarksville) Leaf-Chronicle. “The teachers are not failing and the parents of the students are not failing, it is the structure and profit-taking by this company that is failing.”

A 2011 New York Times investigation into K12 concluded that the company exists to “squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards.”

The test scores at the Tennessee Virtual Academy are among the lowest in the state.
Test scores at the Tennessee Virtual Academy are among the lowest in the state.

Josh Williams, who heads the Tennessee school, said the for-profit nature of K-12 is irrelevant. It’s a vendor for classroom materials, just like the textbook companies that Union County contracts with, he said.

Test scores are more of a concern, Williams acknowledged, while adding that TNVA isn’t the only school in Tennessee to post low scores. He said closing TNVA is unfair when the state does not close the 100 schools that have performed at the state’s lowest level for three straight years.

“We are just a public school, and we’d like to be treated like a public school,” Williams said Monday.

A fact sheet provided to Chalkbeat by Williams attributes the school’s poor academic performance to the high number of students who transferred in “after falling behind, or failing” at their previous schools. He also cited adjustments to the technology.

Williams said the school is improving. Passing rates increased across the board last year, and the school met five of six of the state’s achievement goals for it.

Nationwide, the efficacy of online schools still is being debated. Thirty-one states, including Tennessee, have full-time online schools — many of which have similarly low test scores. Less than 1 percent of students nationwide are enrolled in online courses.

Lilly is a high-achieving student, and her mother enrolled her in TNVA to allow for more individualized learning and flexibility so that Lilly can focus on her passion for dance. She said the opportunity to work independently and with technology should serve her daughter well in high school and college.

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

Because the learning program at TNVA is individualized, Painter is comfortable with the school’s overall low test scores.

“It’s not only for students like my daughter,” Painter said. “… I’ve heard stories of children [who attend the virtual school] who have chronic illnesses, who have disabilities, who it’s more difficult to perform on those types of achievement tests.”

Painter hopes state officials look beyond test scores when deciding the fate of her daughter’s school. “I wish someone could educate them on exactly what the school is about,” she said.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

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