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.
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 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.”
The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization supported by foundations and individual contributions. For more information, visit fcir.org. StateImpact Florida is an education reporting project of NPR, WUSF in Tampa and WLRN in Miami. For more information, visit http://stateimpact.npr.org.