Memo to the West Contra Costa Unified School District Board of Education California Connections Academy Bay Area Charter School By: United Teachers of Richmond CTA/NEA
United Teachers of Richmond CTA/NEA writes this memo for the West Contra Costa Unified School District Board of Education to share information about the dangers of Connections Education, LCC and California Connections Academy. We hope this data and research will help the WCCUSD Board of Education make an educated and easy decision at the next School Board Meeting. We ask the WCCUSD Board of Education to please vote NO on this charter school petition this coming Wednesday, May 8th, 2019.
Petition On February 27, 2019, California Connections Academy Bay Area submitted a charter petition (“petition”) to open a Kindergarten through 12th-grade virtual school in West Contra Costa. The school intends to serve “highly mobile students with complex needs known to impact academic performance”.
There are currently five other Connections Academy (CalCA)2 schools in the network; four currently open in Southern California, Central Valley, and Northern California serving a combined 6,100 students. The Organization has been granted a fifth charter that will open in the fall of 2019. Nationally the school serves over 70,000 students in 35 schools across.
If approved in WCCUSD, the Bay Area school intends to open in year 1 with 224 to 275 students spread across all grade levels, with plans to grow to between 503 to 619 students by year three. Corporate Structure Connections Academy is a division of Connections Education, LLC, which is owned by the UK-based, publicly-traded international media conglomerate Pearson PLC (LSE:PSON, NYSE:PSO).
The company's website says it provides "free" services since it does not charge students, but the services are far from free as they divert taxpayer dollars from the public school system to a private for-profit firm, Connections Education, which is owned by Pearson PLC. Between 2012 and 2016, Pearson PLC made over 6 billion dollars a year in revenues worldwide with over 700 million dollars in profits each year. In 2017 Person reported over 3 billion dollars in revenue in the US alone with over 500 million dollars in revenue. 
All four schools in California have contracts with Connections Academy of California, LLC which is a subsidiary of Connections Academy, LLC, which was acquired in 2011 by Pearson Education Inc as mentioned above.
Connections Academy of California provides the schools with instructional materials, curriculum, technology, HR services including recruiting and payroll, SPED services, accounting, and financial reporting, and student records storage and maintenance, among other things. They run the day-to-day operations of the school.
The schools are run by the same executive director and there is only one principal statewide for high school, middle school, and elementary school (in other words, there is not a principal for each school). The schools share a common website, student handbook, and calendar. Their charter petitions are largely the same and refer to the other California Connections schools as “sister schools.” Connections Academy currently operates tuition-free online "public schools" under management contracts from charter schools or school districts in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming in 2013, according to the company's website.
Controversy Outside of California Connections Academy contracts with public school districts and charter schools to provide online classes for K-12 students. In 2013, Connections Academy operated 33 schools and had more than 62,000 "Full-Time Equivalent students" in 2014. As of today, they operate 35 schools across the US with 70,000 students enrolled. Some of those schools are failing across the US. In September 2013, Politico reported that "Ohio’s six biggest cyber schools all got Fs on their state progress reports, meaning students learned nowhere near a year’s worth of material in a year of studying online." Ohio Connections Academy received $19.2 million in taxpayer funds for 3,123 students, but those students are failing to meet adequate yearly progress by large margins (-11.3 in reading, -15.7 in math, -17.2 overall.)
Connections Academy has ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other organizations promoting a for-profit educational model from which it stands to benefit financially. Both on its own and as a member of ALEC, Connections Academy has pushed a national agenda to replace brick and mortar classrooms with computers and replace actual teachers with "virtual" teachers. Many have questioned the company's extraordinary revenues, generated at taxpayers' expense. There has also been criticism of the quality of the teachers, the lack of government oversight and democratic accountability, as well as the appropriateness of taking children as young as five out of a classroom of their peers and putting them in front of a computer screen, according to the Washington Post.
For many years, there was simply no data on virtual school performance. In 2012-13, state data became available indicating poor student achievement, as well as high student turnover, high student-teacher ratios, uncertified teachers in some states (such as Florida), and a funding formula that often gives companies extended periods of public funds for a child when the child may only stay at the cyber school for a brief period of time. This new information has led some educators and legislators across the US including in Florida, Oregon, Nevada, and California to call for a moratorium on the growth of full-time charter schools until policy-makers can assess the reasons for their significant failure to educate children. For more information on the structure of the national corporate side please go to this link. A 2012 article in USA Today revealed that 10 of the biggest for-profit online K-12 schools (including Connections, which is the second largest) "have spent millions in taxpayer dollars on advertising" -- $94.4 million from 2007 to 2012.
A Connections charter in North Carolina is currently trying to disaffiliate from Pearson. “Bridget Phifer, chairwoman of Connection’s board, charged that Pearson wasn’t giving them a curriculum aligned with state standards. She also accused Pearson of not giving the school’s leaders more accountability, responsibility, and information on how money was being spent.” In 2017, over 2,500 left this and other online schools seeking better options due to low enrollment rates, low student performances, and large withdrawal rates at the schools. “WRAL News filed public records requests with Connections Academy, Virtual Academy and the state Office of Charter Schools to find out specific reasons students and families have given for leaving the two virtual charter schools. The records revealed more than 100 responses, ranging from families who were frustrated or unhappy with the schools to those who enjoyed the online environment but left for personal reasons.”
In New Mexico, a Connections charter will “will receive about $6 million during the current [2018-2019] school year for students who are no longer enrolled” and the State has been trying to shut down the school.
Falsified attendance reports.
Inadequate documentation of students with disabilities.
Lax management of federal Title I funds.
In 2017, Nevada Connections Academy was put on notice by the state over its low graduation rate (40%).
In CA, connection educators have a very large turn over (over 70% every two years) and their average salary is $10,000 to $20,000 lower than educators in WCCUSD. Most educators are also located throughout CA making it hard to have regional or even in person meetings or conversation with the student body or families attending the schools.
Arizona Connections Academy has "reported that 30 percent of enrolled students leave sometime during the school year," according to the Arizona Republic. In comparison, Mesa Unified, the school's largest district, had a "churn" rate of 12 percent in the 2010-2011 school year. The Arizona Republic report added that "doubts about quality plague Arizona's online schools," and "the largest online schools in K-12 lag the state averages among all Arizona public schools in most standardized test scores and in graduation rates. Turnover of students is high, which indicates many students have failed to get traction in mastering their courses or maintaining their motivation."
In Georgia State officials have threatened to close Connections twice in 2017 and again in 2018 due to low performance, complaints, and other allegations.
In South Carolina legislators and communities are calling the 350 million dollar experiment with online Charters such as Connections a big failure. “Despite this hefty investment, online charter schools have produced dismal results on almost all academic metrics, according to state and district data. On average, less than half of their students graduate on time. At one cyber school, nearly a third of students dropped out last school year. Data from the S.C Public Charter School District, which oversees these schools, shows just one in two virtual students enrolls for a full year.
Connections Academy saves money by not having buildings, classrooms, books, etc., and also cuts costs by reducing curriculum and teachers, according to the New York Times. During a presentation at the Virginia legislature in 2011, a representative of Connections Academy explained that its services were available at three price points per student:
"Option A: $7,500, a student-teacher ratio of 35-40 to 1, and an average teacher salary of $45,000.
"Option B: $6,500, a student-teacher ratio of 50 to 1, with less experienced teachers paid $40,000.
"Option C: $4,800 and a student-teacher ratio of 60 to 1, as well as a narrower curriculum."
Connections Academy has also funded the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE), a non-profit education reform advocacy group founded by former Florida governor Jeb Bush, according to emails released by the non-profit privatization resource organization, In the Public Interest. FEE is "backed by many of the same for-profit school corporations that have funded ALEC and vote as equals with its legislators on templates to change laws governing America's public schools," as noted by PRWatch. Bush's group is also "bankrolled by many of the same hard-right foundations bent on privatizing public schools that have funded ALEC" and "they have pushed many of the same changes to the law, which benefit their corporate benefactors and satisfy the free market fundamentalism of the billionaires whose tax-deductible charities underwrite the agenda of these two groups.
Problems with Online Education
According to a CREDO study, online charters have an “overwhelmingly negative impact” on students. “Statistically speaking, the gains that online charter students saw in math were so limited, it was literally as though the student did not go to school for the entire year,” said one of the CREDO researchers.
The Center for American Progress also did a study of for-profit online charter schools, including Connections schools. Among the findings:
· For-profit virtual charter schools have much lower graduation rates than their respective state as a whole and nearby urban school districts that generally serve more low-income students.
· For-profit virtual charter schools underperform the state average for third-grade English language arts and eighth-grade math proficiency.
· Most of the large virtual charter schools in CAP’s analysis also fell far below states’ expectations for students’ academic growth
For further information on the impact of screen time and tech safety research you can go to this link.
Most full-time online students are enrolled at schools run by two for-profit companies: K12 and Connections Academy.
Of those full-time schools that have academic ratings, an independent report found last year that two-thirds are rated academically "unacceptable." And their graduation rates are less than half the average of all public schools.
"Across the board, all the outcome measures we're looking at are negative," says Gary Miron, one of the authors of that report from the National Education Policy Center. He has a clue as to why.
"When we looked at actual expenditures," he says, "we could see that these schools spend a fraction of what districts spend on teacher salaries." About 1 in 10 of their students had a learning disability, yet they spent "next to nothing" on special education-certified teachers, his report found.
We believe that supporting this petition would be completely contradictory to the Charter School Moratorium resolution the WCCUSD Board of Education passed a month ago, as well as contradictory to the resolution in support of public schools you are voting on this Wednesday. This school is strikingly similar to another online Charter School that pulled their petition due to the School Board and community opposition back in 2018 called Uplift, which offered a similar program.
We ask the WCCUSD Board of Education to please vote NO on this charter school petition this Wednesday.
President, United Teachers of Richmond CTA/NEA