The following are remarks from Erica Haynes, a Sandpoint teacher who worked for K12 Inc. for four years. Because she was unable to travel to Boise to testify, she gave permission for her comments to be read to the House Education Committee in its consideration of House Bill 646, which would increase transparency and accountability for Education Management Organizations using Idaho taxpayer dollars. The bill was killed in committee.
I was working for Sandpoint Charter School when I had my first son and became really motivated to be able to stay home with my child. A friend had said, “There’s a new school, Idaho Virtual Academy, and you can work from home,” and I thought, just while I have kids, that might really be worth it. So I got a job with them and stayed home with my child and had another child.
For the first two years, it was actually a fine working environment because we had fantastic communication with our board and our principal, but then my third year, K12 went public with their stock options and at that point in time, the work environment drastically changed and it became about the number of kids in each class and plugging them through. My student numbers went from 160 students to 300 in a very short period of time, and it became completely unmanageable. The expectations for turnaround time and communication with that many students were almost physically impossible. On average I worked 12-hour days, and most weekends.
The fact that our administrators were employees of K12 presented a huge conflict of interest and created an incredibly stressful environment. Our principal was accountable to corporate as well as to the State of Idaho, and these two did not always agree. Corporate often had a money-driven agenda.
Erica says that although her first two years with K12 were good as a teacher, “I don’t think it was healthy for kids. After having taught online for six years now in some form, I don’t think a full-time online school is healthy for any child. The lack of relationship is detrimental.” She notes that because of communication problems, her IDVA students probably got 20 percent of the information they’d get in her classroom. “I don’t want that for my child,” she says.
Ultimately, she says, “I didn’t feel like what I was doing every day was ethical or healthy for kids. … If I didn’t believe in it, I couldn’t keep doing it. The failure rate was really, really high. There was a lot of pressure to pass students. We were trying to reach a 75 percent passing rate. And at 250-300 students, there were some days I could not even open assignments before they were graded if I wanted to meet quota. In the end, it was so impersonal I couldn’t even remember my student’s names.”
Happily, this story has a good ending. After getting the part-time job at Sandpoint High, Erica immediately joined the Lake Pend Oreille Education Association. With her local’s help, she was able to parlay the part-time job into a full-time assignment not long after she was hired. Erica still teaches online, too, but now she does so via the not-for-profit, Idaho-based Idaho Digital Learning Academy. IDLA keeps class sizes between 15 and 30; uses a hybrid (or blended learning) approach that involves at least one certified teacher in the room with students; and ensures that students get plenty of individual attention.
“I am not opposed to online education. I feel very fortunate to work for IDLA. IDLA is professional and extremely well run. They provide supplemental courses that are valuable to our school districts and a high-quality curriculum to our students.”
“Online courses are a necessary part of our future. I feel that as educators we have learned to embrace this. … What I fear is that corporations like K12 will assume power in the decision making of this future, and that the same conflict of interests that existed at IDVA will soon prohibit a healthy education for our children.”