Seminole County teacher Amy Capelle had to make a decision.
Her supervisor at the nation’s largest online school, K12, asked her to sign a roster saying she’d taught 112 kids.
She’d only taught seven.
“If you see your name next to a student that might not be yours, it’s because you are qualified to teach that subject, and we needed to put your name there,” wrote K12 supervisor Samantha Gilormini in an e-mail.
Capelle refused, and now state officials are investigating whether K12 used improperly certified teachers and asked employees to cover it up.
Seminole County officials say this problem may reach far beyond their borders.
But many Florida school districts have no way to know whether K12 students are actually being taught by properly certified teachers, according to a review by StateImpact Florida and Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.
Seminole County school officials took a series of unusual steps to check if K12 was being honest about who was teaching its students.
They asked K12 teachers to sign rosters of their students. And they followed up with a survey of K12 parents. Just one in three parents said the teacher listed actually taught their child.
Most Florida districts don’t take those precautions -- and several contacted by StateImpact Florida/FCIR said they had no plans to do so.
Both Hillsborough and Pinellas county school districts said all online teachers undergo standard human resources checks. Those steps include fingerprinting, a background investigation and providing proof of all teaching certifications.
Neither district has ever done a follow-up survey, such as the one Seminole County schools conducted to identify problems with K12.
Meanwhile, school officials in Brevard and Volusia counties say they are asking parents to verify their child’s K12 teacher.
K12 officials say they always use state-certified teachers, but an internal review found “minor mistakes” in matching a teacher’s grade and course certifications to students.
K12 founder and CEO Ron Packard called the conclusions of the Seminole County schools investigation an “unbelievable amount of rumor-mongering and absurd extrapolations” in a conference call Thursday.
“All teachers teaching Seminole County students were Florida-certified,” he said “In our internal review we have only identified minor mistakes in matching the appropriate grade and course certifications with specific students in courses.
"Why would we have ever hired teachers that weren’t certified? We have tens of applicants for every job."
The use of online education is developing faster than the policy regulating it, said education experts.
Most states require online teachers are certified, said Michael K. Barbour, an assistant professor at Wayne State University and Susan Patrick, president of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning. But both Barbour and Patrick said few states require the teacher to be certified in the state where the student is located.
So an instructor in one state could teach a student in another.
Pennsylvania and Ohio allow some online teachers without certification, but researchers said it’s unclear how many other states do.
Luis Huerta, a researcher at Teacher’s College at Columbia University, said the federal No Child Left Behind law increased certification requirements for all educators a decade ago. But since then the move has been away from certifications as for-profit companies, such as K12, seek fewer regulations.
There’s a new demand for online education, thanks to state legislatures in Florida and other states. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is pushing states to require online courses in order to graduate high school.
Florida, Alabama, Idaho, Michigan and Virginia all require students take at least one online course.
The Seminole County schools investigation worried the problems they found with K12 would be statewide since the company provided services to 43 Florida school districts.
Huerta believed they are likely happening across the country as for-profit businesses seek to provide services as cheaply as possible.
“I don’t think there’s just a few bad apples of K12 management doing this,” Huerta said. “This is a concerted effort.”
The Florida Department of Education said their investigation is limited to Seminole County.
But a federal lawsuit in Virginia could lead to a national investigation. It charges the company with misleading investors, and if it’s allowed to proceed, lawyers would have access to K12 internal company records.
Oversight of K12 is mixed among Florida districts.
Leon County has a typical contract with K12. It requires Florida-certified teachers who are certified in the subject they are teaching.
“If the teacher is not both we move (the students) out of there,” said Chris Petley, Leon County schools spokesman.
Petley said the district’s virtual school principal checks to make sure teachers are properly certified. The district has removed one student from a K12 class because the teacher wasn’t properly certified, he said.
But not every school district is checking K12’s work.
Hillsborough County schools spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said more than 2,300 students took courses through the K12-run Florida Virtual Academy. The district has not audited those students to determine who actually taught the classes.
“They promise us they meet all of the certifications,” Cobbe said. The district does not require online teachers to sign off that they taught a course.
Pinellas County schools spokesman Melanie Marquez said the district is aware of the state investigation, but has not audited K12-taught courses.
The school district “will certainly be interested in what the state determines,” Marquez said, but the district does not ask K12 to verify which teachers taught which students.
About 70 Pinellas County students in Kindergarten through 5th grade take courses through K12.
Face to Face
But some Florida districts are concerned about improperly-certified teachers.
Two districts, Volusia and Brevard, are surveying parents of K12 students to check who taught their children.
“We know what the issue is and what we’re going to do it see if there’s any discrepancy,” said Gary Marks, Volusia County schools’ director of alternative programs, athletics and security. “We have no reason to think there’s a problem.”
Marks said the district could finish the survey this week.
Other districts have smaller programs which require face-to-face meetings.
Orange and Broward county schools believe they would know if a teacher was not instructing a student.
K12 handles fewer than 80 elementary students in each county. The company uses one teacher for Broward County and two teachers in Orange County.
Virtual program principals in both counties said they frequently meet with teachers and parents and ask for both scheduled and unscheduled updates on student progress.
Orange County schools holds a face-to-face orientation with parents and K12 teachers, said Brandi Gurley, principal of the district’s virtual school. Gurley said she spoke with Seminole County school officials and doesn’t believe the same problems are happening in Orange County.
Gurley said it would be difficult for a teacher to answer her questions about progress if they were not teaching the student themselves.
Broward County virtual school principal Christopher McGuire said the solution is real-life meetings between parents and virtual school teachers.
‘”It’s difficult for me to encounter a parent who says ‘I don’t know who the teacher is,’” McGuire said. “You can’t start our program without a face-to-face orientation with the parent and the teacher.”
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 a project of NPR, WUSF Public Media and WLRN Public Media. For more information, visit stateimpact.npr.org/florida.