The Florida Department of Education is investigating K12, the nation's largest online educator, over allegations the company uses uncertified teachers in violation of state law and has asked employees to cover up the practice.
K12 officials asked state-certified teachers to sign class rosters that included students they hadn't taught, according to documents that are part of the investigation, which began in January.
In one case, a K12 manager instructed a certified teacher to sign a class roster of more than 100 students, according to documents obtained by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida. She only recognized seven names on that list.
"I cannot sign off on students who are not my actual students," then-K12 teacher Amy Capelle wrote to her supervisor. "It is not ethical to submit records to the district that are inaccurate."
Founded in 2000 by William Bennett, a former U.S. education secretary under President Ronald Reagan, K12 is an $864 million publicly traded company whose stock price has more than doubled in the last year. It operates in 43 Florida school districts, including in Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, Orange and Duval counties, teaching everything from art to algebra to students in kindergarten through high school. It has denied wrongdoing.
According to K12's website, students enjoy "state-certified teachers, with a parent or other responsible adult in the role of 'Learning Coach.' "
But K12 has a financial incentive to skirt Florida's law requiring the use of certified teachers. Simply, K12 can pay uncertified teachers less than certified teachers while collecting the same amount per student from school districts, increasing profits for shareholders.
And documents indicate it may have used uncertified teachers in at least one county after being told it couldn't.
In 2009, K12 asked Seminole County Public Schools if it could use uncertified teachers for some online classes. Those uncertified teachers would be overseen by a so-called "teacher of record" - a certified teacher.
Seminole officials consulted with the Florida Department of Education and then denied the request, citing state law requiring certified teachers. But emails forwarded to the school district by a K12 employee show the company went ahead anyway.
In one email, K12's Florida project manager asked teachers to sign off on having taught students they may have never encountered.
"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," K12's Samantha Gilormini wrote on Feb. 15, 2011.
Gilormini asked K12 teacher Capelle, whose emails helped spark the investigation, to sign off on a list of 112 students. Of the 112, she'd taught only seven of the students, and refused to sign.
"I am happy to sign for the seven Seminole students who are my students, but I cannot sign as the teacher of record for students who I do not know," Capelle wrote.
Since Capelle didn't sign off on the students, K12 manager Gila Tuchman signed in her place and submitted the records to Seminole certifying that Capelle had taught students she hadn't. Capelle, who now works as a Seminole County teacher, did not respond to a call for comment.
After reading these emails, Seminole officials followed up with a survey of parents whose kids were enrolled in K12 classes. Parents were given a list of teachers who reportedly instructed their children.
More than one-third of parents said the listed teacher did not teach their child.
Only 36 percent of parents said their child's teacher was the one K12 had listed. The rest could not be reached or said they couldn't remember.
The survey and emails prompted Seminole officials to request that the Department of Education investigate. They warned the state that the problems they uncovered with K12 may be widespread.
"Since K12 uses the same teachers across the state in virtual instruction programs, this issue may reach far beyond the borders of Seminole County," they wrote.
The Department of Education's Office of Inspector General confirmed the probe but declined to discuss it.
K12 officials declined interview requests. In a statement, spokesman Jeff Kwitowski said the company is working closely with investigators.
"We do not believe the allegations against K12 regarding teacher certification are accurate," he wrote. "K12's policy is to follow teacher certification requirements. K12 teachers assigned to teach students in Florida are state certified. Because K12 is continuing to work with state officials on this matter, further comment would be inappropriate."
Other Florida school districts have found problems when officials checked whether certified teachers taught K12 courses.
Leon County Schools spokesman Chris Petley said his district has removed students from K12 courses that were taught by teachers who were either not certified in Florida or not certified in the course subject.
"If the teacher is not both," Petley said of certifications, "we move them out of there."
But Leon and other Florida public school districts may not be able to detect the problems that Seminole County officials discovered. That's because Seminole County requires virtual school teachers to sign off on class rosters, certifying they actually taught those students. Others do not.
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting: http://fcir.org/
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