Someone let the dogs out of Pamela Irvine’s house, most likely one of her two youngest boys.
She was yelling after the dogs, while trying to explain her weekslong struggle to get the boys, ages 7 and 9, enrolled at Georgia’s largest online school. Instead of studying, they have been running around, harassing their older siblings who’ve already started at other schools and have homework.
“I need them to not be bored,” a stressed-out Irvine said, “so they’re not doing all of this. I need them in school.”
The family in Swainsboro is among the many casualties of a rocky first week at Georgia Cyber Academy, where computers froze, email stopped working and student records disappeared just before school started last Monday.
The public charter school, Georgia’s largest with about 10,000 students, got about $90 million in taxpayer funding last school year. The money is a reason for the chaos: The school has been rocked by a legal battle with the corporation that used to operate it. In an unusually public divorce between an online school and a big vendor, accusations of questionable business practices are flying on social media and in legal documents.
Caught in the middle are parents, many of them in far-flung parts of the state who complain of being unable to cut through the labyrinthine communications network of a school that exists only on their computer screens, if their computers have even arrived.
The fallout reveals a downside of an educational model in the ether. It is convenient and offers flexibility, and, with its limitless reach, can be an alternative to an underperforming neighborhood school, especially in rural areas. But parents are discovering that when things go wrong, they have little recourse. Normally, one would hop in the car or walk down the street, and seek service at the front desk. But what happens when the online school’s headquarters is a hundred or more miles away, and voicemails, emails and online forms yield no results?
Amie Casal of Martinez had been trying to enroll her son in Georgia Cyber Academy since mid-July. She was running out of options: Their neighborhood school had already started, and the deadline to register for home schooling loomed. She woke up Saturday to an email saying he’d been enrolled. But when she tried to log him in, it didn’t work. “At least it’s a step in the right direction,” she said.
She didn’t realize the school’s administration was in upheaval until she saw a K12, Inc.’s executive’s post on Facebook that alleged “questionable” practices by the school.
“That is when many of us who had no idea what was going on panicked,” Casal said.
Until then, the school and its major vendor, K12 Inc., had been brawling behind closed doors. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which has long been critical of the performance of virtual charter schools run by K12 and other companies, monitors their activities across the country. A spokeswoman said it is unclear whether the disorder accompanying this breakup is common because they’ve never seen one play out so publicly.
On Tuesday, in a shareholder conference call, company CEO Nathaniel Davis told the world about it. The company, which had previously lost control over day-to-day operations, is alleging breach of contract because the school board was now hiring other vendors for curriculum, computers and other services.
Legal documents show how much K12, with a billion dollars in annual revenue, stands to lose in Georgia. They say the school paid K12 $54 million — more than half the school’s federal and state dollars — in fiscal year 2019 alone. The company wanted another $13.3 million to avert a shutdown of K12 services needed to begin the school year.
The company’s lawyers said the school had been warned that withdrawing students from K12’s computer systems, as the school had done, would wreak havoc.
Children have been collateral damage, and some say this is evidence that public schools should not be run by for-profit companies, as Georgia Cyber Academy was until last year. The school’s leaders and teachers are now on the payroll of the nonprofit school board, instead of reporting to K12.
Corporations have shareholders to please, said Steve Zimmerman, who leads the New York-based Coalition of Public Independent Charter Schools.
“Their business model calls for these schools to be perpetual sources of revenue,” said Zimmerman, who founded a charter school that survived a similar breakup.
Others note that even regular public schools partner with vendors to supply things like books and buildings. “This is, as far as I can tell, a rare instance where it went bad,” said Kyle Wingfield, president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank in Atlanta.
But public schools don’t typically put the corporations in charge. Charter schools don’t often do it, either, with 1 in 5 of Georgia’s state charter schools choosing that model. The boards of fledgling schools typically go that route if they need financial backing to get off the ground, Zimmerman said, and may overlook an unfavorable contract.
“You can get out of it, but it ties up the school for a very long time, and creates all of this chaos,” he said, “and often parents and students suffer.”
The agency that oversees state charter schools has so far sided with the school. The State Charter Schools Commission said it learned that K12 accused the school on social media of misuse of public dollars and potential violations of enrollment law, but the agency said it had seen no evidence to indicate such violations by the school. It is consulting with the state attorney general’s office to get K12 to return historical records to the school, saying continued delay is both a disruption for families and a violation of state law.
K12 said the agency was operating on misinformation from the school and that it hoped to “correct the record” in a meeting.
Some parents oppose the separation from K12, saying they miss the books the company used to mail them; the new material is entirely online. But others, such as Terri Coons, whose daughter has attended since kindergarten, say the new curriculum is better matched to the state’s learning standards. Veronica, 12, no longer has to go on a “scavenger hunt” through “dense” pages for the relevant material, said Coons, who lives in Milton.
Parents who’ve been at the school for years warned that the first week can be messy, but some didn’t even get a first week.
Alexis Phelps, who lives in Buchanan, still didn’t have new computers for her two daughters as of Friday afternoon, despite at least a dozen phone, email and online contacts with the school. She was among the parents who followed K12’s instructions to return their old computers after the company and school split.
“My kids are already a week behind,” she said.
Irvine, the Swainsboro mom who has been struggling to keep her two youngest sons in check, had received no updates from the school as of early Saturday afternoon. She said the 9-year-old is particularly distressed about missing so many days. In three weeks of trying to register them, she said Friday, she’d gotten “absolutely zero” response.
“He’s asking every day, when am I going to start,” she said. “He needs answers. So do I.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.