This story is the third in our series, “Who’s Counted: Taking a Closer Look at School District Graduation Rates.” The first part of the series examined how dropout re-engagement programs are excluded from district graduation rates under a state policy, and the second part focused on how online schools that enroll students from across the state are also left out of district graduation rate calculations.
In 2010, Tim King and his network of public charter schools in Oregon were in crisis. King, head of the organization called All Prep, was at the center of a state investigation that accused him of a range of complaints about the schools, many of them online programs hosted by small school districts. The schools were accused of transferring students without their parents’ knowledge and commingling funds.
By March of that year, several schools shuttered. Teachers were laid off. Later, they filed complaints that they hadn’t been paid. Some school offices received eviction notices.
King stepped down. Three years later, the state of Oregon sued him; in a settlement, he agreed never to operate public charter schools in Oregon.
But, just a few weeks after stepping down from All Prep and all its problems, King crossed the Washington border and signed an agreement to run an online school for the Toppenish School District near Yakima.
The school, which he named Northwest Allprep, enrolls about 400 students from across Washington state. The agreement built on a previous partnership between King and the district.
King incorporated Northwest Allprep as a limited liability company based in Vancouver, Washington. A year later, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction granted him approval to enroll students in the online school, which is funded with state tax dollars, despite the collapse of his charter-school network in a neighboring state.
King denies any wrongdoing. He says the problems in Oregon resulted from a lack of clear oversight for charter schools and constant shifting standards.
King told KNKX Public Radio that he never transferred students without their families’ knowledge or inappropriately commingled funds between schools. He said the school closures and eviction notices were not the result of financial mismanagement, but rather a cash-flow problem resulting from the investigation.
“We weren’t able to get all of our money because the districts were starting to be very cautious,” King said. They withheld funds because of the active investigation, he added.
Toppenish Superintendent John Cerna acknowledges he had concerns about what had transpired in Oregon. But, he says, he was satisfied after speaking about them with King.
“He was in charge of the instructional piece and he had a CFO in charge of the business piece, and I don’t think he had a good grasp of what was going on with the business piece,” Cerna said. “That’s how they got in trouble.”
Cerna said he saw value in offering an online school to students who previously struggled in regular schools. He said he’s structured the agreement with Northwest Allprep so the Toppenish district has more control of the finances, while King is in charge of instruction.
“He wouldn’t be working for me if I was really concerned,” Cerna said.
Online schools in Washington have largely flown under the radar, even though they enroll thousands of students every year. Some of them have poor academic results. Northwest Allprep, which uses online curriculum provided by a company called Odysseyware, had a graduation rate of 27 percent last year and a dropout rate of 69 percent. Fewer than 10 percent of students met the standard on the statewide math assessment.
Under a policy set by OSPI, online schools that enroll a majority of students from outside the district are not included in district-level graduation rates. Toppenish school district’s graduation rate last year was 79.9 percent, but that did not factor in the Northwest Allprep students. If they were included, the district’s graduation rate would have been 68 percent.
And online schools offer rural districts a financial boost. In Toppenish, the district keeps 30 percent of the per-pupil amount from the state, said David Andrews, the district’s business manager. With about 400 students enrolled, that adds up to almost $1 million — funds he said are used for basic education for all Toppenish students, including those at the online school.
By comparison, under Quillayute Valley School District’s agreement with K12 Inc. to host Insight School of Washington, another online school, the district keeps 6 percent of the per-pupil amount for the first 1,700 students and 3 percent for the rest.
Toppenish receives another benefit in the form of local effort assistance, which is money the state provides to property-poor school districts that can’t raise much in local levies. The hundreds of Northwest Allprep students, who live scattered across the state, add to the Toppenish district enrollment, translating to even more local effort assistance.
OSPI officials said they’re working with Northwest Allprep and the district to ensure the program is complying with state laws and benefiting students.
Rhett Nelson, director of the alternative learning department at OSPI, says King’s past doesn’t disqualify him from running the program.
“We don’t have anything in place that says you as a person can’t operate a school in the state, as far as I know,” Nelson said.
The school’s office is located in a strip mall building near an Indian restaurant in Vancouver. Northwest Allprep advertises on its website that it’s “fully accredited.” But King said the school dropped its accreditation, after the state removed the requirement for online school programs to be accredited.
King said his school provides some in-person instruction in addition to the online coursework. The teachers meet with students in person, King said, and he drives around the state visiting students who live in more remote areas.
“What we’ve found is the more adult contact we can get them in their environment, we can be a little more successful with the kid,” he said.
But with a virtual school, it's hard to track down students to learn about their experiences. One young woman, who attended Northwest Allprep, said the amount of work was "ridiculous." She said she got very little support. She went back to a brick-and-mortar public high school before discovering she had fallen too far behind; she never finished. She asked not to be named in this story.
King said Northwest Allprep’s graduation rate and test results are so low because many young people who enter the school are already behind.
Cerna asserted that the school’s graduation rate is higher than the statewide average for online schools, though OSPI officials said they don’t calculate an average graduation rate for online schools.
“Most of these kids wouldn’t be graduating if there were no online programs available for them,” Cerna said. “Instead of looking at the 69 percent that didn’t graduate, how about the ones that did that would have probably never graduated if there wasn’t an online program available for them?”
And yet, the school has a lot of work to do to reach a graduation rate of 90 percent, which is the target Washington has set for all schools to achieve by 2027. That’s part of the state’s accountability plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.
Online schools, such as Northwest Allprep, also are subject to performance targets that OSPI established in September. For example, 50 percent of students in online schools who take an online English language arts course are supposed to pass the statewide language arts assessment. And 40 percent who take an online math class are supposed to meet the standard on the statewide math test.
King acknowledged it will be difficult for his school to meet those targets.
“The kids who come to us, the majority of them, aren’t kids who fall in the category of originally having passed those tests ever,” he said.
But the performance targets were supposed to go into effect in 2015 and OSPI repeatedly delayed them. Agency officials said the rules could still change and it's not clear if schools are going to be required to meet those standards.