The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida have obtained internal e-mails and a recording of a company meeting that provide new insight into allegations K12 Inc., the nation's largest online education company, uses teachers in Florida who do not have all required state certifications.
Last month, a draft report by the state Department of Education's Office of Inspector General found the publicly traded company employed at least three teachers in Seminole County without proper state subject certifications.
Florida law requires teachers to pass three exams to earn state certification and be certified for all subjects and grades they teach.
Department of Education investigators did not find teachers without state certification, as a complaint filed by the Seminole County School District had claimed. But the investigators did find teachers without subject certifications. The draft report attributed the problem
to sloppy paperwork at Virginia-based K12 rather than intent to skirt the law.
If that's true, then paperwork for Florida classes has been a problem at K12 since 2009, according to the internal e-mails and the recording of a company meeting.
K12 operates in 43 Florida school districts, including Manatee County, where 73 full-time students are enrolled, according to the district. The K12 website indicates it operates a Sarasota Virtual School, too.
In addition Pinellas, Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, Orange and Duval counties all have students enrolled in K12. The company teaches everything from art to algebra to students in kindergarten through high school.
In October 2009, K12 teachers complained in an e-mail to Julie Frein, then-senior director of the K12 Educator Group, that paperwork suggested the company was using a so-called "teacher of record" system in Florida. That's a system in which certified teachers sign off on teaching classes taught by other teachers, who may not have had the necessary state certifications. Florida law prohibits this practice.
"This has major credibility issues with these teachers," Laura Creach, a curriculum specialist at K12, wrote in an Oct. 30, 2009, e-mail to Frein.
The teachers' concern was signing off on classes they didn't teach -- a potential violation of Florida law -- was unethical and could result in loss of their state certification. The e-mail prompted a recorded conference call with Creach, Frein and another K12 employee Nov. 3, 2009.
"I have a concern -- I've already expressed it to you several times -- about my license being used," Creach told Frein in the conference call. "I'm not opposed to [the license] being used, but I just wanted to know ahead of time and I want to do my own research to know that is acceptable in that state to do that. And I want to know who's teaching under me."
"Well, I think the important part about Florida is that you are not actually teaching in Florida," Frein replied. "You have not had any contact with students in Florida. Your name being on that list (of teachers in Florida) was nothing but a mistake."
For K12, the mistake was convenient.
In 2009, according to the recording, K12 had trouble hiring teachers who could meet Florida certification requirements such as submitting fingerprints and going through a background check.
"They're eligible for it, but we can't go to the next step to get them certified," Frein said of the teachers K12 had hired for Florida in the recorded conversation.
That meant the for-profit online educator was having difficulty complying with a request from the Seminole County School District to provide class rosters signed by teachers with required subject certifications.
Seminole County officials were suspicious of K12's practices. No other Florida school districts required signed rosters.
At the time, according to the recording, K12 teachers were swapping watercooler talk that they had heard their certifications were used for classes they weren't instructing. Teachers were objecting to the idea of signing off on students they had not taught.
Company managers said during conversations recorded in 2009 that they were ending this practice. If that had happened, it would support the state investigation's draft conclusion that teacher certification problems at K12 were due simply to paperwork problems.
But internal e-mails from K12 over a two-year period, also obtained by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida, suggest the practice of using teachers of record continued through at least early 2011.
In a Feb. 15, 2011, e-mail, K12's Samantha Gilormini, in charge of the company's Florida schools, asked teachers to sign class rosters that included students they had not taught. The reason: K12 needed to use their certification to comply with Florida law on classes for which they didn't have teachers with the required subject certifications.
"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," Gilormini wrote.
Teacher Amy Capelle was given a roster of 112 students. She'd only taught seven and refused to sign. After learning of this, Seminole County school officials called for a state investigation in 2012.
Asked about the e-mails and recording, K12 spokesman Jeff Kwitowski said in a written statement: "K12 takes compliance seriously. It is a core value of the company. K12 is committed to meeting all state requirements and to address any issues and errors that may arise."
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 an education reporting project of NPR, WUSF in Tampa and WLRN in Miami. For more information, visit http://stateimpact.npr.org.