Some public-education advocates are questioning $4 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to launch an online charter school in Arkansas that benefits the for-profit education company founded by conservative icon William J. Bennett. They say Bennett’s firm might have profited unfairly from his political connections, and they claim the federal funds are being used to subsidize education for home-schooled students at the expense of public schools.

State officials used the grants to create the Arkansas Virtual Academy, a two-year-old program that provides online learning to students from home with curriculum supplied by Virginia-based K12 Inc., Bennett’s for-profit company.

Former Education Secretary William Bennett is chairman of K12 Inc., a company offering public schooling in private homes via the internet. (Associated Press photo)

Bennett, former U.S. Secretary of Education, drug czar, and conservative author and pundit, founded K12 in 1999 as an option to traditional brick-and-mortar schools.

Funding for the Arkansas project came from ED’s Voluntary Public School Choice Program, a competitive grant program created under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The program’s aim is to expand the options for public-school students, and department officials are supposed to give priority to projects they think will have the greatest impact in moving students from low-performing public schools to higher-performing ones.

But an analysis conducted last spring found that 60 percent of the academy’s students used to be home-schooled, and 15 percent either came from private schools or their schooling history was unavailable, according to a July report in Education Week, a Maryland-based newspaper published by Editorial Projects in Education. Only 25 percent of the academy’s students came directly from public education.

The publication also reported that ED awarded the grants despite the fact that the Arkansas project scored lower on a series of independent reviews than at least one other program that wasn’t funded–a highly unusual occurrence, ED insiders said, and one that raises the question of whether the program received preferential treatment as a result of the political ties among Bennett, Arkansas state officials, and Bush administration officials.

“Anything with Bill Bennett’s name on it is going to get funded,” one ED employee reportedly said.

Federal education officials and K12 employees deny those claims, saying the Arkansas project was needed to provide another option for parents and students in a state where many schools were failing to meet the standards put in place by NCLB.

“There was a definite demand for this service,” K12’s senior public relations manager, Jeff Kwitowski, told eSchool News. Kwitowski said the academy received more than 1,300 applications for the new school year, despite having only 430 slots to fill. Of the students who made it in, he said, more than 80 percent would have been assigned to a school labeled “in need of improvement” had they attended their local public school system instead.

As for the charges of unfair treatment, ED spokeswoman Susan Aspey told Education Week the department maintains the right to fund additional programs, regardless of how they score on independent peer reviews.

“We always have the discretion to fund additional applications, and that’s exactly what happened in this case,” Aspey told the paper. “We wanted a diverse pool of grantees that were each trying innovative, distinct approaches to expand parental options in education.”

In several states–most notably Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Wisconsin–disputes have arisen between virtual charter schools and the public school officials who claim these online schools are siphoning away students and the public tax dollars that follow them. In many cases, these disputes involve cyber charter schools run by for-profit companies. But the Arkansas Virtual Academy is one of the first such virtual school project to be federally funded.

“To see money diverted from our public school coffers to support a for-profit company helping parents home-school [their children] does not seem like an appropriate use of public money,” said Barbara Stein, a policy analyst at the National Education Association.

Though students in the academy learn from a home computer, K12’s Kwitowski said, once enrolled they become public-school students, subject to the same state and national testing standards as their peers attending brick-and-mortar schools. Any virtual school that fails to show gains in student achievement runs the risk of being labeled “in need of improvement” under NCLB, just as any other public school does, he said.

“The agreement around here is that we want to be treated like any other public school,” Kwitowski said, adding that for students who struggle in traditional learning environments, having a virtual option can only be a positive development.


U.S. Department of Education

Arkansas Virtual Academy

K12 Inc.