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California Virtual Academies

"We're from the government, and we're here to help"

By Mary Leggewie, June 2002

The "virtual academy" has come to California. Rather than rely on what I had been hearing from others, I decided to attend a recruiting meeting for the California Virtual Academy. I attended one locally, and then I attended one within walking distance of the CHEA convention that raised the ire of the California Home Educator's Association (CHEA) and many independent homeschoolers. An unsolicited promotional letter from K12's head office, from Senior Vice President Ken Stickevers was sent out to many homeschoolers in California. K12 chose to schedule meetings near the biggest Christian homeschooling convention in California, the CHEA convention. In other words, for the price of a stamp, they profited from all of CHEA's advertising money by scheduling and locating its meetings to coincide with CHEA's convention. Not only that, but nowhere in the letter does it mention that they offer K12 curriculum for "free" via the new CAVA charter school. I suspect they didn't want to mention that detail because most CHEA members have been warned about the dangers of public/charter school "homeschool" programs. And, as I suspected, they were ready with applications for CAVA to receive K12's "engaging, world-class curriculum for 'free.'" Perhaps this is legal, but for a company whose cofounder and chairman edited the "Book of Virtues," this is very questionable.

First of all, allow me to offer a few brief definitions:

1)K12 is a curriculum written under the direction of William (Bill) Bennett. It is available for sale privately, at a rather high price ($1195) compared to other methods of homeschooling. K12 curriculum is also available through charter schools that are in partnership (their word) with Bill Bennett's K12 company at the expense of the taxpayers.

2) California Virtual Academy (CAVA) is a government-regulated, tax-funded school, using the K12 curriculum, enrolling students in several counties throughout California, in partnership with William Bennett's K12 company.

3) Charter School is a public school that has been exempted from some of the state's education laws.

At the first meeting I attended, K12 had two employees who had a very slick Powerpoint presentation. I did not get the impression they were CAVA employees--they appeared to be from the K12's head office and seemed accustomed to making presentations in different states. The second meeting (near the CHEA convention) was conducted by the Director of Sales & Customer Care (who, by the way, took the position before he even saw the curriculum).

It would have been VERY tempting for an unsuspecting homeschooler or prospective homeschooler to sign up after seeing the presentation. The presenters knew all the carrots to dangle to entice someone to sign up. There were nine families present, including a few homeschooling families. A few left before the presentation was over. There was one person there I had met before who is about to begin homeschooling, and she signed up.

The presentation looks very interesting until you realize that this is REAL life we're living. Trying to get it all done (the number of hours they require of a student), while allowing for vacations, occasional time off for "real life," etc., would be a definite challenge, especially for those who have large families.

They were up front in stating that "This is NOT homeschooling. This is PUBLIC school." They had a slide in their presentation showing the differences between public school and homeschooling which they explained as follows:

1) Curriculum: CAVA uses K12 curriculum, which has "6 core courses and NO choice of curriculum."
2) Accountability: to government for CAVA students
3) Testing: required, no exceptions for CAVA students (I have heard that they cannot do this, that families can opt out of testing, but they didn't mention this option.)

On the other hand, in my opinion, an independent Christian homeschooler, filing an affidavit ("R4" form) as a private school in California, follows these rules:

1) Curriculum: whatever works best for the learning style of the child.
2) Accountability: To God for the content, to the state for attendance records (there is no required number of days for those filing R-4 affidavits) and health and immunization records or exemptions.
3) Testing: at the discretion of the family.

In CA, public schools are required to do 175 days, but the California Virtual Academy mandates a certain number of minutes per day adding up to:

Kindergarten: 3.3 hours per day
1st Grade: 4.7 hours per day
4-8th Grades: 5 hours per day
9-12 Grades: 6 hours per day

Those of us who homeschool know that that's a considerable amount of time, often a recipe for homeschool "burn-out." I asked about large families and the presenter said they can give "permission" to combine only a few of the subjects and teach those subjects to all the children in the family at once. Then you'd be only required to teach certain subjects, like math and language arts, to every single child in the family separately. This still makes a long day for a mom who has several children.

Take a look at 1st grade. 4.7 hours per day is a tremendous of time. I think most of us keep "seat work" under 1 hour per day at that age. They didn't say how much seat work was required for each of those grades, but I pointed out that I thought 4.7 hours was a LOT of time at that age and indicated that most homeschoolers can do 1st grade in a lot less time. I saw some attendees, nodding heads, agreeing with me on this issue.

They also do not allow for year-round school ("yet," the presenter answered). She suggested that if you take a vacation, you can print out all your work and haul it with you. In other words, you're going to have a fun time juggling the hours you have to track if you don't haul the work with you. This is a great loss of flexibility, one of homeschoooling's greater benefits.

The attendance page displayed on each student's computer allows the parent to record the number of minutes accomplished per subject. It looked very simple to the uninitiated, but those of us who have homeschooled would most likely know what a bookkeeping nightmare this would entail. Obviously, this would not apply to those who have purchased K12 curriculum privately and have not joined this charter school. Someone else brought up the question of how to record field trips, and the presenter pointed out that you could allot the minutes on your attendance sheet by subject. Her example was a trip to the many minutes allotted to language arts, so many to geography, so many to science, and so on. Such complexity is not required of independent California homeschoolers.

What happens to the curriculum that you were supposed to cover when you take a field trip? It's automatically pushed back a day. They said that no one is really expected to get through all the curriculum anyway-- "after all, they never get through all the books in a regular public school, either." So those who are compulsive about "finishing the books" will suffer guilt, as it is most likely an unattainable goal.

As for on-line computer time, they showed a graph, although at the second meeting, they increased the totals to the following percentages.

Kindergarten: 20-25%
6th grade: 40% (of course, at this time they only go to 5th, so I guess this is their future goal)
12th grade: 75%

You are allowed to place your child in different levels for math and language arts, the only two topics that were asked about, but they had no idea what they'd do about the possibility of skipping grades, or allowing for the possibility of early graduation. They did mention that the content is "very deep," so you can delve further rather than race ahead. In other words, they've got enough to keep you busy no matter how smart your child is, or so they think. If you have a child who likes to race through his school work to get done early, he will no longer be permitted to do that since he has a certain number of minutes to endure, not an assignment to complete.

One homeschool mom was very concerned about early graduation so her child could go to community college classes, but they didn't have an answer for her. I believe that there is no tuition in California for high school students who are enrolled in community college classes, so this is a big financial concern to homeschooling parents. She basically answered her own question--she said that the child could take the CA High School Proficiency Examination (CHSPE) to "graduate," and leave CAVA, but that they would miss out on the charter's "graduation."

They showed us a glitzy sample science lesson for first grade about the "deep ocean." The student at the computer would feel as if he were in a "submarine" going down to the ocean floor, while seeing the different animals and plants along the way. It looked like fun, but there are readily available, inexpensive CD-ROMs that perform the same sort of learning exercise. The second meeting I attended, coincidentally showed us the same "favorite" lesson (a different presenter). I had to ask for the screen to be focused, at which point, the misspelling of the word "temperature" (spelled "tempurature") became obvious on every page throughout the entire lesson.

CAVA supplies "everything you need:" a computer for every child, Internet connection, consumable texts, and reusable textbooks (which are returned at the year's end). They had a few nice books, but it sure didn't look like as much as we use here in my home. One e-mail I received recently from a K12 parent said she was baffled to receive a box of chalkboard chalk in her box! They do not supply ink or paper, and said that last year this was a problem because of the expense to parents of printing out volumes of worksheets for each student. (Ugh for those who don't like worksheets). They are coming out with preprinted packets of worksheets this year. They reimburse you quarterly for your Internet service provider (Earthlink has a contract with them for most areas). I should have asked about Internet filters, but forgot, and they didn't bring it up. Lesson plans are obtained on-line, delivered to you daily, and adjusted based upon what was accomplished the previous day.

They raved about their qualified, certificated teachers, so I pressed them about the credentials--are they emergency credentials as a high percentage of California public school teachers hold? She really didn't have an answer, but admitted it was indeed possible that they were using some teachers with emergency credentials. She said they were "experienced teachers," but didn't elaborate what makes those holding emergency credentials "experienced." Don't get me wrong...I don't put much value on credentials anyway, but this is a full credential/emergency credential issue that may be important to some potential recruits. At the second meeting, the presenter said that they are all teachers with full credentials and that they have 50-60 applicants for every teacher opening.

What about God? This should be the foremost question on a Christian parent's mind. The separation of religion from academics is due to Article 9, Section 8 of California's Constitution. They were quick to point out that you can talk about God in your home while teaching, but let us know that you have to turn off the imaginary stopwatch (my words) and not count those minutes as school time. So, it's "start God," and "stop God" essentially in this program, or you are lying on your attendance records. Compartmentalizing God and life separately in this fashion could lead the student to believe that this is how Christian life should be.

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Matthew 6:24

Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ. 2 Corinthians 10:5

As for the new "tolerance and diversity agenda" taking over California schools, they were pretty clueless about California now requiring the teaching of unBiblical tolerance, diversity, and soon the government sanctioned religion of ecology. They seemed to think that they wouldn't have to abide by that law, but admitted, after I mentioned "Heather has Two Mommies," that this book IS on the approved reading list. I should have pressed them to find out if that means that families can only count books on the approved list in their minutes recorded--I suspect not. This vagueness is quite a serious matter, since parents enrolling their children in CAVA are relying on CAVA to ensure legal compliance. Parents should understand that being in a public program does not give them any special legal protection, and the Home School Legal Defense Association does not accept government school students. If your assigned teacher has a different worldview, he or she may feel obligated to report you to CPS because of your parenting style.

The entire curriculum is based mostly on E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge series (What Your Nth Grader Needs to Know books). There are teacher helps throughout, with little scripts you can pop up to see what you're supposed to do or say (the few samples we saw reminded me of scripted teacher's manuals). It looked very time-consuming, cumbersome, and not much like what I know as homeschooling.

As for the price to buy the K12 Curriculum privately, at $1195 per child per year for the complete curriculum, it's expensive! The price of K12 Curriculum wasn't even mentioned at the first meeting since they were supplying it all courtesy of our tax dollars. [And our neighbor's tax dollars...see The Alliance for the Separation of School and State]. At the second meeting, they said they had a special price right now, but it was still close to $1000. Most homeschoolers I know spend less than $300 per year for all their children (based on reusing non-consumable books for the younger children). In fact, if you're just beginning homeschooling, and are nervous about starting out and want to buy a "canned" curriculum, it's easy to find them in the $300-500 price range from quite a few companies, AND with a Christian Worldview. Some of the more popular "canned" programs available (all well under $500) are, in alphabetical order: A Beka (approx $400 for 5th grade-Protestant), Alpha Omega's Switched on Schoolhouse ($285 for 5th grade-Protestant, $900 additional for teacher support/transcripts), Bob Jones University Press (approx. $400-Protestant), Calvert ($595 for 5th grade--secular but traditional classical), Covenant Home (approx. $500-Reformed Protestant), Mother of Divine Grace (Catholic), Northstar Academy (Private on-line Christian school, sold by course) and Seton (Catholic). Most of the homeschoolers I know choose to piece together their own curriculum, finding that each of their children are unique! There are a many other homeschool suppliers who will help you formulate an eclectic mix of books for those who do not wish to use a one-size-fits-all style of homeschooling.

As I stated in my article on Charter Schools, one of my biggest fears is that the more these public "homeschool" programs proliferate, the more our right to homeschool independently in California is jeopardized. Our right to homeschool in all 50 states was hard-fought by brave homeschooling pioneers, who would be ashamed to see homeschoolers jumping back into government school. If California outlaws homeschooling, other states will be sure to jump on the bandwagon. California homeschoolers are routinely told that homeschooling is illegal by the California Department of Education, even though this is not addressed by state law. Those of us happily homeschooling don't want the "free help" from the government when we're doing a great job on our own, in a fraction of the time.

Why is K12 targeting homeschoolers when Bennett is on the record about his goal to give public school students an alternative? Is he trying to lure homeschoolers back into the government school system? Of course! How can there be any doubt? When ADA money (Average Daily Attendance money) is approximately $6,000 per year per student, a virtual academy has very low overhead, hence a high profit margin.

In summary, the CAVA program looks enticing to "newbies" who don't anticipate the restrictions and burdens they will face by enrolling their child in a charter school. I doubt most Christians would want to have their children under the hand of the government as in this alternative public school program. I personally think there are better ways to get the job done. This is definitely "SCHOOL AT HOME," one-size-fits-all, even if it is nontraditional. As for a private purchase of K12, my recommendation is to find a Christian alternative since every K12 purchase and charter school enrollment is a vote to regulate homeschooling. After all, if homeschoolers themselves think they need the supervision, don't they need the government's "help?"

Further reading:

My article on charter school homeschool programs.
California Virtual Academy
HSLDA: Charter Schools: The Price Is Too High
HSLDA: Charter Schools: Look Before You Leap
On-Line Charter Schools for Homeschool Families? The proverbial "wolf in sheep's clothing" by Bruce Purdy of CHEO
Loophole in Ohio's Laws --an interesting look at some serious questions in Ohio with K12's OHVA Virtual Charter Schools Face Opposition From Unlikely Source
We Stand for Homeschooling
Homeschool Resources Related to This Article

Interview with Cathy Duffy on School Vouchers
Interview with Marshall Fritz about the Separation of School and State