Polk's got 99 problems; but K12 ain't one

Try to imagine taking part in this school board meeting, as a described last week by Miami Herald reporter Colleen Wright. Link here.

It took 13 hours and 400 public speakers for the Miami-Dade County School Board to decide it had heard enough.

The marathon meeting started at 1 p.m. Wednesday and culminated in the board’s vote at 2 a.m. Thursday to stop using My School Online, the controversial online learning platform run by a company called K12 that many say is largely to blame for the school district’s extraordinarily disastrous start of the school year

When you have to add "extraordinarily" to "disastrous" to describe a thing; it's bad. I don't think I've ever seen that usage, but it's appropriate to the era. Routine disasters no longer move us.

K12 is a big, for-profit online learning provider with multiple different products and ambitions. It's embedded in the failed, so-called "reform" movement of education, of which Jeb Bush is the godfather. (See this article for background on that.) Betsy DeVos and husband were early K12 investors. And K12 has been a big contributor ($10,000 - $25,000) to Jeb's Foundation's (Excelined) annual "summit," at least through 2018. See below.

Yes, that's the same annual "summit" that I objected to Superintendent Byrd attending in 2019 in San Diego. Check out K12's company. Folks, this is that "swamp" some of you are so fond of talking about draining, right here in Florida education.

Polk's infamous 2017 K12 "Sales Quote"

We're going to come back to the Miami-Dade's K12 meltdown in a moment. But if K12 sounds especially familiar to you in Polk County, it should.

Back in May 2017, Polk's then Deputy Superintendent John Small, a public employee, directed his subordinate at the Polk District, also a public employee, to sign a $1.8 million “sales quote” with K12 to create a specialized virtual learning portal and greatly expanded product presence for Polk County. The business goal seemed to be to make K12 the dominant curriculum vendor for Polk Virtual School. The subordinate did not sign the sales quote, despite Small's pressure, because this "sales quote" had not been presented to or approved by the elected School Board.

A few months later, in fall of 2017, John Small retired from the district and immediately went to work for K12. About the same time, K12 tried for the first time to collect from Polk County taxpayers on this $1.8 million contract for a greatly expanded K12 product that did not exist. I still don’t know if Small was working for the Polk District or K12 when K12 the first tried to collect on the non-existent contract or product cited in the "sales quote."

The Polk District allowed K12 to continue pursuing “collection efforts by K12’s accounting team” for some extended period of time. District emails show district staff still responding to K12 collection efforts and still NOT reporting them to the elected board or law enforcement in the spring of 2018, 10 months after creation of the “sales quote” that no one signed. The Polk District’s response to this ongoing collection effort on a contract that didn't exist was to meet personally with K12 officials, including John Small. And the subordinate that Small directed to sign the “sales quote” reluctantly gave a testimonial about K12’s virtual school portal, which wasn't even being used, in the spring of 2018.

Doing the right thing often comes with personal consequences

That subordinate's career with the Polk County School District died within months of refusing to sign the quote -- because doing the right thing when power wants you to do the wrong thing always comes with personal consequences.

And that career-killing culture part of the Polk District is entirely on Jackie Byrd. The superintendent apparently said the deal would not go forward at a lunch meeting with Small and others in the fall of 2017. For that, this district employee's actions should have been rewarded; but the opposite happened. He was still feeling K12-related pressure in spring of 2018. And then he left the district shortly afterward, years sooner than planned. We are a district and community that too often rewards personal loyalty to power and too often punishes courage in the public interest. Blackballing is definitely a thing; and we'll talk more about it in articles to come.

On the other hand, Small's subordinate didn't go to prison for creating an illegal contract. So there's that.

I found out about this sordid turn of events, after they had happened, in late May of 2018 from a non-senior staff member. When I inquired about it, I was first ignored and then given very little information by senior staff. As a result, I asked the State Attorney’s Office to help because I could not rule out illegality in how all of this unfolded.

The SAO investigator did a very through job. He did not find criminality, but several telling points emerged:

  • Small was not interviewed by the State Attorney's Office, although the subordinate who refused to sign the sales quote and Superintendent Byrd were. I don't why that is. One has to make one's own inferences.

  • Somebody at K12 (apparently not Small) got paid a commission on the Polk deal that did not exist.

  • The K12 employee responsible for the ongoing collection efforts was fired by K12. Again, apparently this was not Small, who is still a K12 VP, according to Linked In.

K12: the Sales Quote vs. K12: the established product

As a result of all of this becoming public, the district dropped K12 entirely as a Polk Virtual provider. (State law requires three online vendors for virtual school options.) I didn't ask for that. I had only asked for a public accounting of what happened. I wanted oversight of the business development relationship. I didn't care about killing the content relationship that already existed.

Dropping K12 immediately inconvenienced parents and kids who were already using K12 at small scale through Polk Virtual.

Indeed, when a very nice and polite family reached out some months later to ask that Polk Virtual bring K12 back as a vendor, I advocated for it on their behalf. I think senior staff was hesitant to do that if they thought I would raise a stink. So I made a point of saying during a formal School Board meeting that I was fine with using K12's content in the way we had been using it all along if any future business development was handled ethically.

The benefits of an elected official actually doing his job

Fast forward to 2020: I'm hearing that the K12 part of Polk Virtual -- the proven product -- is the only part that's really working at the moment. At the same time, we are not using an unproven K12 platform for the wider school-based e-learning, like Miami-Dade was.

That's because of careful, precise, beneficial elected board member oversight. It's because I did my job when the pre-2018 board members had no interest in doing so. See full article here from that time.

And while Polk's school-based e-learning, done through a platform called "Schoology," is not perfect, it's generally functioning as a platform. (On the other hand, the elected Polk School Board no more voted to purchase Schoology than the Miami-Dade board did K12; so there's probably a back story there that I don't yet know.)

In Polk, of course, we have our own pressing problems. It starts with a COVID positivity rate that is worst among Florida's 10 most populated counties, including Miami-Dade.

These are the 10 most populated counties in Florida. The % shown is the rolling 2 week average of positive COVID cases. Be proud, Pinellas/St. Pete, but don't be complacent. If you've been doing things the right way, thank you. If you can do better, do it. We need you to help. pic.twitter.com/WCbH7TwmWX

— Rick Kriseman (@Kriseman) September 10, 2020

But the most pressing problem for schools is the human issue of forcing teachers and staff to teach in-person and e-school simultaneously at a time of COVID quarantining and very few available subs. That's just grinding the whole system up, from what I can tell, at the human level. All districts, not just Polk, face this deep human capacity problem. We faced it before COVID. I've been warning about it and warning about it and warning about it. I wrote about COVID and human capacity in this article from last week.

But imagine how much worse this systemic stress would be if Schoology just didn't work at all as a platform. That's Miami-Dade and K12.

Sound familiar?

Again, this is from Miami Herald reporter Colleen Wright's amazing story about the Miami-Dade meeting. Key excerpt:

...The School Board finished early Thursday what it did not start. The district secured a $15.3 million no-bid contract without board approval, citing board policy that allows the district to buy curriculum without approval.

Another proposal authored and successfully passed by Gallon effectively ended that loophole.

Carvalho later revealed that he never signed the contract. He emphasized early Thursday morning that despite K12 providing weeks of training, allowing access to its platform for 275,000 students and 19,000 teachers and making a $1.57 million donation to Carvalho’s nonprofit to give an incentive “valued at up to $100” to teachers who set up their lessons ahead of time, no payments were made to K12.

K12 did not respond to requests for comment.

Wow. And then this:

Over the summer, the district lined up K12’s My School Online.

Teachers, students and their parents quickly became well acquainted with the technical glitches and curriculum shortfalls of My School Online. Before school even started, teachers complained they weren’t able to actually learn the platform hands-on until days before the Aug. 31 start of remote classes.

The cute stock photo of “banana dog” show on K12’s ubiquitous error page became famous. Memes and videos posted on social media mocked — or at least, made light of — the outages.

The district last week told teachers and students in grades 6-12 to get off the My School Online platform and move to Microsoft Teams and Zoom, citing issues with the secondary grade platform on a national level. Some elementary schools and teachers did the same, fed-up with K12’s problems

I'm not going to dive deeply into all the dark hilarity of this happening under Alberto Carvalho's leadership.

But if you know anything about Florida education, you'll know about Carvalho's endless self-promotion, self-congratulation, and preening. And you'll know his comfort snuggling up with shady people/orgs like Corcoran and Ralph Arza and K12.

Carvalho is every public education-hating, swamp-dweller's favorite public education "advocate." He's the "progressive" face of Jeb-ism. That makes him an outstanding politician, in a public education sector that generally lacks them among its leaders. It also makes him the most potent political force among Florida superintendents. But it does not make him a particularly good public education advocate for the state -- nor a good judge of the soundness of online platforms.

A good trade

Given John Small's longstanding influence with the Polk District and his close relationships with key leaders, I find it quite likely that K12 was on a trajectory to become the Polk District's e-school platform. So I'm awfully glad I pointed out publicly his obvious conflicts in 2017 and made K12's business practices here toxic through rigorous government oversight.

At the same time, it's reasonably clear to me that "vengeance for John Small" was a particularly important motivation for a couple of key members of Ruling Class Club during the campaign.

The particular holders of that motivation probably provided access to at least some of the big money used to industrialize the "Billy is a racist who threatens Trump voters and thinks civics is crap" memes and mailers. (Really, that is literally the argument they made, in that language, separately, to different audiences of voters. I'm not kidding, for those of you new to this.)

So that offers up a hypothetical.

Was it worth it to lose an election so that what happened in Miami-Dade didn't happen here? LOL. What do you think I say to that? Small victories matter. Sometimes they're not even that small.

Moreover, the coming months and years will be an ongoing experiment in what my audience and I have the power to help shape without possessing the title of School Board member.

I'm willing to bet that we're still able to keep K12 on a very tight leash. Anybody want to take that bet?