Internal Recording Reveals K12 Inc. Struggled to Comply With Florida Law

By Trevor Aaronson and John O’Connor
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting/StateImpact Florida

Listen to the companion radio report by John O’Connor of StateImpact Florida:

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The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida have obtained internal emails and a recording of a company meeting that provide new insight into allegations that K12 Inc., the nation’s largest online education company, uses teachers in Florida who do not have all of the required state certifications.

About This Story

This story is the result of a collaboration between the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida.

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Coverage of K12 by FCIR and StateImpact Florida.

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The for-profit online educator knew of teacher certification problems in Florida for years.

Last month, a draft report by the state Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General found that the publicly traded company employed at least three teachers in Seminole County who did not have the proper state subject certifications. According to Florida law, teachers must pass three exams to earn state certification as well as be certified for the subjects and grades they teach.

Department of Education investigators did not find teachers without state certification, as a complaint filed by the Seminole County School District had claimed. But the investigators did find teachers without necessary subject certifications. The draft report attributed the problem to sloppy paperwork at Virginia-based K12, rather than intent to skirt the law.

If that’s true, then paperwork for Florida classes has been a problem at K12 since 2009, according to the internal emails and the recording of a company meeting.

K12 operates in 43 Florida school districts, including in Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, Orange and Duval counties. The company teaches everything from art to algebra to students in kindergarten through high school.

In October 2009, K12 teachers first complained in an email to Julie Frein, then the senior director of the K12 Educator Group, that paperwork seemed to suggest the company was using a so-called “teacher of record” system in Florida. That’s a system in which certified teachers sign off on teaching classes that were taught day to day by other teachers, who may not have had the necessary state certifications. Florida law prohibits this practice.

“This has major credibility issues with these teachers,” Laura Creach, a curriculum specialist at K12, wrote in an Oct. 30, 2009, email to Frein.

The teachers’ concern was that signing off on classes they didn’t teach — a potential violation of Florida law — was not only unethical but could result in the loss of their state certification. The email prompted a conference call with Creach, Frein and another K12 employee on Nov. 3, 2009. The call was recorded.

“I have a concern — I’ve already expressed it to you several times — about my license being used,” Creach told Frein in the conference call. “I’m not opposed to (the license) being used, but I just wanted to know ahead of time and I want to do my own research to know that is acceptable in that state to do that. And I want to know who’s teaching under me.”

“Well, I think the important part about Florida is that you are not actually teaching in Florida,” Frein replied. “You have not had any contact with students in Florida. Your name being on that list (of teachers in Florida) was nothing but a mistake.”

For K12, the mistake was convenient. In 2009, according to the recording, K12 was having trouble hiring teachers who could meet every Florida certification requirement, such as submitting fingerprints and going through a background check.

“They’re eligible for it, but we can’t go to the next step to get them certified,” Frein said of the teachers K12 had hired for Florida in the recorded conversation.

That meant the for-profit online educator was having difficulty complying with a request from the Seminole County School District to provide class rosters signed by teachers with the required subject certifications. No other Florida school districts required signed rosters. Seminole County officials were suspicious of K12’s practices.

At the time, according to the recording, K12 teachers were swapping “watercooler talk” that they had heard their certifications were used for classes they weren’t instructing. Teachers were objecting to the idea of signing off on students they had not taught.

Company managers said during the conversations recorded in 2009 that they were ending this practice. If that had happened, it would support the state investigation’s draft conclusion that teacher certification problems at K12 were due simply to paperwork problems.

But internal emails over a two-year period from K12, also obtained by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida, suggest that the practice of using teachers of record continued through at least early 2011.

In a Feb. 15, 2011, email, K12’s Samantha Gilormini, who was in charge of the company’s Florida schools, asked teachers to sign class rosters that included students they had not taught. The reason: K12 needed to use their certification to comply with Florida law on classes for which they didn’t have teachers with the required subject certifications.

“So if you see your name next to a student that might not be yours it’s because you were qualified to teach that subject and we needed to put your name there,” Gilormini wrote.

One teacher, Amy Capelle, was given a roster of 112 students. She’d only taught seven of those students, and refused to sign. After learning of this, Seminole County school officials called for a state investigation in 2012.

Asked about the emails and recording, K12 spokesman Jeff Kwitowski said in a written statement: “K12 takes compliance seriously. It is a core value of the company. K12 is committed to meeting all state requirements and to address any issues and errors that may arise.”

Listen to the K12 recording in full:

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Comments

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3 Responses

  1. Jeff Kwitowski

    John and Trevor,

    This is very selective reporting. You did not include passages in recordings where K12 supervisors were clearly instructing teachers and staff to comply with all state requirements and not fill out any forms that are not accurate. You edited out those quotes and the response I sent to you via email. Here’s what I sent to you in full:

    K12’s policy is to follow all state requirements. The draft report from the OIG (Office of Inspector General), which was recently made public, conclusively found that Seminole’s claim that K12 intentionally avoided state certification laws was unsubstantiated.

    The 2009 recordings clearly show K12 supervisors instructing teachers and staff to follow and comply with all state requirements. All of this material was provided by K12 to the OIG and fully reviewed by the OIG. There were some record
    keeping and reporting errors, which K12 disclosed and corrected. K12
    status as a state-approved virtual school provider was recently renewed and we are confident our program in Florida is fully compliant with state requirements.

    Your question implies K12 had a “practice” of asking teachers to sign class rosters which included students they had not taught. That was never the case. In fact the opposite is true. The 2009 recordings show that K12 supervisors instructed staff
    and teachers to fill out and complete only accurate information. The
    dialogue is documented in K12’s response to the OIG, which was also recently made public. On page 4 and footnote on page 5, Allison Cleveland states, “no teacher should fill out anything that isn’t correct because teacher of record is not allowed in Florida and so they actually shouldn’t fill out those forms. And the resubmit it’ll all be, all of the corrected teachers will be listed.” Additionally, the supervisors clearly acknowledge that the request for signatures from the wrong teachers was sent in error.

    K12 takes compliance seriously. It is a core value of the company. K12 is committed to meeting all state requirements and to address any issues and errors that may arise. In all cases, K12’s top priority is to put students and families first and employ a high quality virtual instructional model focused on academic
    success.

    Jeff Kwitowski

    SVP, Public Affairs

    K12 Inc.

    Reply
  2. Trevor Aaronson

    Jeff,

    The full recording will be available to readers at FCIR.org and on StateImpact Florida starting Monday morning, following release of our story on Florida NPR member stations. I disagree with your claim that our reporting was selective. Through K12’s internal emails and that recording, our reporting showed that your company knew of problems with Florida teacher certification starting in 2009 and that those problems continued through February 2011, when Samantha Gilormini asked K12’s Florida teachers to sign off on class rosters that included students they had not taught. If K12’s certification problem in Florida is related to paperwork, then that problem persisted at your company from 2009 through 2011, our reporting showed.

    Trevor Aaronson
    Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

    Reply
  3. Jeff Kwitowski

    So you did not think that the multiple passages in the recordings where K12 supervisors clearly instruct K12 teachers and staff to follow state requirements were relevant to mention in your article? That’s selective. K12 supervisors are heard speaking often about the importance of following all state laws. Again, the draft report by the IG found the primary claims made by this one county, Seminole, were unsubstantiated.

    Reply

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