By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
A new report from USA Today found that virtual school operators are dealing with low enrollment numbers by spending public funds on advertising.
While public schools will layoff staff when they see low enrollment, these online schools will spend millions of dollars on advertising towards young people.
According to USA Today‘s research, “10 of the largest for-profit [virtual school] operators have spent an estimated $94.4 million on ads since 2007.”
K12 Inc., an embattled for-profit operator of online schools and is the biggest virtual school chain in the country, “has spent about $21.5 million in just the first eight months of 2012,” USA Today reports.
According to USA Today:
The analysis is based on ad buys and rates compiled by Kantar Media, a New York-based provider of “media and marketing intelligence,” but the figures are only estimates. In an interview, K12 spokesman Jeff Kwitowski wouldn’t say whether the estimates are accurate or provide actual K12 figures. But he said the company’s agreements with local school districts and charter school authorizers require K12 to publicize its programs, often over large geographic areas.
“We try our best to ensure that all families know that these options exist,” Kwitowski said. “It’s really about the parents’ choice — they’re the ones that make the decision about what school or program is the best fit for their child.”
A look at where K12 is placing the ads suggests that the company is also working to appeal to kids: Among the hundreds of outlets tapped this year, K12 has spent an estimated $631,600 to advertise on Nickelodeon, $601,600 on The Cartoon Network and $671,400 on MeetMe.com, a social networking site popular with teens. It also dropped $3,000 on VampireFreaks.com, which calls itself “the Web’s largest community for dark alternative culture.”
K12 has contracts with individual public school districts– including ongoing contracts with 43 districts here in Florida. This means taxpayer funding for education gets doled out to companies like K12 every year.
According to Kevin Welner, a University of Colorado professor and researcher that has been critical of virtual schools, a good chunk of this money is being spent on ads. Welner told USA Today that “K12 is on pace this year to spend about $340 per student on advertising, or about 5.2 percent of its per-pupil public expenditures.”
K12 faces other sort of controversies, as well. The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting has published extensive reporting on K12, including investigations into an inquiry by the Florida Department of Education’s Inspector General into the virtual school operator’s practices. The inquiry found that K12 Inc. employed three teachers in Florida who did not have the right certification to teach some subjects.
FCIR/State Impact Florida also found in the state investigation that K12 officials asked state-certified teachers to sign class rosters that included students they had not taught. In another instance, a K12 manager told a certified teacher to sign a class roster of more than 100 students when she only recognized seven names on that list.
According to Florida law, teachers must pass three exams to earn state certification as well as be certified for the subject and grades they teach.
All the investigations and reporting into K12 came from a complaint from the Seminole County School District. The complaint highlighted at least three middle-school K12 teachers in Seminole County who did not have proper subject certification for the online courses they were teaching.
In regard to these investigations, K12 officials told USA Today that the virtual school operator is a “leader” in this type of education and “with that comes additional scrutiny.”