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Cyber-school hopes to expand in District 11

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Chad Auer, recruiter for K12 Inc. - TERJE LANGELAND

Cyber-school hopes to expand in District 11 A rapidly growing "cyber-school" corporation, co-founded by former junk-bond king Michael Milken, is looking to expand its operations in Colorado Springs.

K12 Inc., based in McLean, Va., is in discussions with School District 11 about having one of the district's schools adopt a curriculum developed by the company.

"We've been interested in using that curriculum," said Elaine Naleski, a spokeswoman for D-11. "The parents really like it -- the parents we've talked to."

K12 Inc. already operates an online-only school in Colorado, the Colorado Virtual Academy, which serves some 1,500 students across the state and is chartered out of Adams School District 12, north of Denver. Roughly one-third of the school's students live in the Pikes Peak region.

Students at the Colorado Virtual Academy, and at most other K12 Inc. schools in 11 states, study from home using an Internet-based curriculum. But the company is now planning to also open brick-and-mortar versions of its program. A handful of such schools have already opened elsewhere in the country, according to Kin Griffith, executive director of the Colorado Virtual Academy.

Last fall, K12 Inc. applied to open a charter school in Colorado Springs District 11, but the request was turned down upon the recommendation of a district advisory committee, which found numerous shortcomings in the application.

Rather than appealing the rejection to the state Board of Education, K12 Inc. has decided to enter into talks with D-11 about having an existing school adopt the K12 Inc. model, Griffith said.

Losing autonomy

K12 Inc. was founded four years ago with a $10-million investment from Milken, a convicted felon who went to prison in the 1990s for securities fraud. The chairman and public face of the corporation is William Bennett, a conservative activist who served as secretary of education during the Reagan administration.

The company has marketed its virtual-school model mainly to existing home-schoolers or parents interested in home schooling.

The curriculum is closely related to Core Knowledge, a model favored by many conservatives, and the history portion of the curriculum is "a little bit right of center," according to Chad Auer, a K12 Inc. recruiter.

K12 Inc. has earned high marks from many local parents, who lined up at a D-11 school board meeting earlier this year to sing its praises and urge the district to approve the proposed charter school.

But K12 Inc. also has its critics. Some home-schooling advocates fear that the company is co-opting "true" home schooling because it appeals to parents interested in educating their children from home, but pulls those children back into the public school system through charters or vouchers.

Students at the Colorado Virtual Academy, for instance, are considered public-school students enrolled in Adams District 12, and they must all take state assessment tests.

By accepting tax dollars and "public" school status, parents lose much of the autonomy that's the basis for home schooling, says Mark Hegener, publisher of Home Education Magazine in Tonasket, Wash.

"We don't necessarily want the government dictating our curriculum, dictating our hours," Hegener said.

Local home-schooling advocate Treon Goossen, of Florissant, says K12 Inc. may be a good program. But she shares Hegener's concern, saying that if the lines between home schooling and public schools are blurred in the public mind, home education could be compromised.

"Home-schoolers have fought long and hard for the freedoms they have and are not willing for those freedoms to be restricted," Goossen said.

Griffith, the executive director of the Colorado Virtual Academy, disputes the notion that K12 Inc. co-opts home schooling. Rather, he said, many former public-school students use the program as a bridge to becoming independently home-schooled.

"We're building a confidence in families that they can educate their kids at home," Griffith said.

The school is also pointing out to potential students and their parents the difference between K12 Inc. and home schooling.

"You're not a home-schooler if you come on board" with the Colorado Virtual Academy, Auer told parents during a recruiting session in the Springs on Tuesday.

Offshore education

On the flip side, some also fear that companies like K12 Inc. are undermining public schools through privatization. When a public-school system agrees to let the company educate its children through charter schools or voucher programs, public-education dollars head out of the district to the company's corporate headquarters in Virginia, Hegener notes.

And because it's primarily online-based, there's nothing to stop a company like K12 Inc. from moving its headquarters overseas, Hegener added. Eventually, public-education money, instead of paying the salaries of local schoolteachers and janitors, could end up "in a bank in the Cayman Islands."

"This is a major, major switch that's happening," Hegener said, "without a lot of thought and without much debate."

In Florida, K12 Inc. was one of two cyber-school companies that last year received a total of $4.8 million in state voucher money to educate 1,000 children. The cyber-education program later came under a state investigation for allegedly violating enrollment rules.

Though no wrongdoing was uncovered, the program lost support from prominent Florida lawmakers, including state Senate President Jim King, a Republican who, in the Palm Beach Post, referred to people involved in the program as "charlatans and flimflam artists that would try to bilk rather than help."

--Terje Langeland

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