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The Texas Virtual Academy, Now Serving No. 6,000

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“At this point, the Texas Virtual Academy shouldn’t exist”—that’s how the Observer’s Abby Rapoport put it last October, but just look at them now.

Not only is the online school still around, after whitewashing its record of underperformance with a cool administrative switcheroo, they’ve been approved by the Texas Education Agency to take up to 6,000 students for next school year. That’s up from 2,400 students two years ago.

Texas Virtual Academy is an online-only charter school, so on paper it’s run by a Texas-based nonprofit, though its curriculum, teachers and even its website are run by the for-profit online education giant K12 Inc. The Texas Virtual Academy is K12’s biggest toehold in this fair state, but the company has been the subject of some serious criticism in places where it has a bigger presence, for everything from its top executives’ multimillion-dollar salaries to its practice, since discontinued, of outsourcing test grading to India.

As Abby noted last fall (“The Pearson Graduate,” September 2011), the Texas Virtual Academy is in a privileged position, despite multiple failing grades from the TEA, because it’s part of a program from the Legislature to increase access to online education. It’s one of three full-time online schools in the Texas Virtual Schools Network, and it’s the only charter school among them. The other two virtual schools are run by public school districts in Houston (which contracts with the for-profit Connections Academy) and Texarkana (with a curriculum from the nonprofit Calvert School).

Houston-based charter Southwest Schools had been the local charter-holder managing the Texas Virtual Academy, but after two years of getting “academically unacceptable” ratings from TEA, the district dropped the online school in 2011. Since last year, the virtual academy has been “managed” by the Lewisville-based Responsive Education Solutions, one of the Texas’ largest charter operators, a chain with a good track record under the state’s rating system. That’s a nice-looking wrapper for a chronically underperforming school.

Conservative groups love the prospects for publicly funded online schools. As the group Progress Texas pointed out last month, growing the online K-12 market has been big priority of the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which promote private-sector opportunities in the public education world.

Texas law limits the number of charters TEA can award, but once a charter-holder gets into the system, it can add extra campuses or bump its enrollment cap with a simple administrative OK from TEA. No elected officials had to vote on the decision to more than doubling the Texas Virtual Academy’s enrollment.

The Texas Virtual Academy may be the same K12 Inc. program that failed to meet state standards two out of the last three years, but in the hands of the right charter-holder it’s a cash cow with virtually unlimited growth.

Patrick Michels is a reporter for the Texas Observer and a former legislative intern. He has been a staff writer and web editor at the Dallas Observer, and a former editor of the Texas Independent. He has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University, a master's in photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin, and is a competitive eating enthusiast.