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Virtual Schools, Virtually Unregulated?

After a technical switch, a virtual school gets around accountability standards.

by Abby Rapoport

At this point, the Texas Virtual Academy shouldn't exist. Under the state's accountability rules, the school should have been shut down or overhauled after failing to meet state standards two years in a row. Instead, students are enrolled now for yet another year, thanks to a loophole for-profit companies contracting with state schools can exploit.

The Texas Virtual Academy, which last year had 2,400 kids, isn't like other schools. The full-time school, geared toward students between third and eleventh grades, differs from other public schools in two major ways. It’s online-only, meaning students take their classes over the Internet rather than in a bricks-and-mortar classroom. And though it’s paid for with public dollars, operations are managed entirely by a for-profit company, K12 Inc.

But Texas Virtual Academy is still subject to the state's accountability system—at least in theory. The school was rated unsatisfactory the past two years, despite an intervention team from the state. Normally that would mean the school had to be overhauled or shut down. But despite that performance, it's still operating. In fact, not much has changed this year. The school’s website is still located on the K12 Inc. server, and the school’s teachers are still K12 Inc. employees rather than state workers.

But there is one slight change this year—location.

For the last five years, the Texas Virtual Academy contracted with the Houston charter Southwest Schools, which paid K12 to manage and operate the establishment.

But the virtual academy failed to meet state standards two years in a row and faced getting shut down. Southwest Schools severed the contract and no longer offered the online program. Yet that was hardly a problem for K12, which simply got a contract with a different charter school. This year, K12 operates Texas Virtual Academy through a contract with Houston charter Responsive Education Solutions. Texas Virtual Academy's relationship with these charter schools is all on paper. So even though it swtiched host charter school, Texas Virtual Academy is virtually unchanged. The school is still going by the same name and operated by the same company, but its record is wiped clean.

The on-paper switch to a new host charter has given Texas Virtual Academy a completely fresh start. . .
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— Abby Rapoport
Texas Observer





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