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Soon-to-open Flex Academy, with ties to for-profit K12, excites some, raises eyebrows in others

MinnPost photo by Jana Freiband
A metro-area billboard promoting the opening of Flex Academy.

Have you seen the billboards that have sprung up alongside the highways that transect Minneapolis, Richfield and Bloomington promoting Flex Academy, a new school slated to open next fall?

Depending on whom you ask, the signs signal the imminent privatization of public education, an unfair marketing advantage or an innovation that could catapult schools into the new millennium.

When fully enrolled, Flex Academy will be a public charter serving 525 students in grades 6-12 in a “blended learning” environment. Students will show up to school in Richfield where they will work online at their own pace. Many of the school’s features — from the digital curriculum to the template for its website — are provided by a publicly traded corporation, K12 Inc.

Excitement — and raised eyebrows

The concept is one that excites most proponents of innovation in education: Combining technology that allows lessons to be personalized for each student with a 19-to-one student-teacher ratio that allows plenty of supportive face-time. The local names associated with the school are well-respected educators and scholars.

But the other novelty has eyebrows raised. Some of the tax dollars that will follow Twin Cities students to the school will go to pay for billboards, recruiters and marketers. Some will find their way into the pockets of corporate stockholders.

Like other Minnesota charters, Flex Academy is a nonprofit governed by an independent school board. Board members may choose to augment K12’s offerings or not use them at all. But that doesn’t seem likely: The proposal to create the school was made by a K12 vice president who founded the first two Flex academies, both located in California’s Bay Area.

The model — local teachers, aides and administrators working closely with a company that provides “turnkey” management and academic services — is on the rise in other parts of the country. But it’s new to the Twin Cities, where most charter proponents have eschewed bringing profit into the picture.

Indeed, with a few exceptions Minnesota has not even seen the arrival of the nonprofit charter management organizations many states court because their economies of scale allow them to hit the ground running and to use network resources for recruitment, teacher professional development and other things that bedevil cash-strapped stand-alone start-ups.

The school’s charter authorizer, Innovative Quality Schools (IQS), is not troubled by Flex’s contract with K12. The group authorizes the very successful Duluth Edison Charter Schools, an 18-year-old program that contracts with the privately held for-profit Edison Learning.

“We sometimes think our current schools are not for-profit,” observes Bob Wedl, a former state education commissioner, a partner at the think tank Education Evolving and IQS’ liaison to Flex. “Houghton-Mifflin, IBM — lots of places sell stuff to schools.”

‘Hybrid disruption’

IQS is more interested in what’s been termed “hybrid disruption.”

“There are any number of things we were really interested in with this model,” Wedl explains. “The curriculum is online. That enables students to move at their own pace. Teachers can then guide students who need more support.”

Veteran Minneapolis teacher and principal Greg Gentle will lead the new program. He was in the process of exploring opening a blended learning school in 2012, the year San Francisco Flex Academy posted the largest gains in its district. When he learned the organization was trying to open a school here, he went to visit the California one.

“I was definitely skeptical,” he says. “I was a teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools when Edison came and went and I understand people’s concerns about public dollars and for-profit entities in public education. But don’t forget that Edison now has a very successful school in Duluth. It can work.”

And it’s easier than going it alone, Gentle says. “I worked with new charter schools in the past that really struggled because they didn’t have the kind of financial support they needed,” he says. “We have great support including strong curriculum and in the area of operations. Operations is hard for start-ups. We are much better positioned for a strong foundation to launch Flex Academy because of relationship with K12.”


K12 enrolls more pupils — 137,000, including some in schools that buy only its curriculum — than any other education management organization (EMO) in the country. Its stock is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ as LRN.

In 2014 revenue topped $800 million, the lion’s share from public schools where the corporation provides “primary administrative oversight” as well as digital curriculum. “Revenue per enrollment” in those schools — the vast majority low-overhead online only ventures — rose almost 8 percent over 2013 to $3,416.

The corporation is active on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a secretive membership organization that brings big business and state lawmakers together to craft and share model legislation. The expansion of digital schooling is on the group’s wish list.

After a 2011 New York Times investigation found students at an online-only K12 school lagging in proficiency and dropping out in large numbers, shareholders filed a class-action suit against K12. Controversies attended the company’s virtual schools in Florida, Ohio, Tennessee and Colorado, among other places.

Indeed, K12’s public profile — and stock prices — have taken such a beating in recent years that the corporation has considered spinning off its blended learning business into a wholly owned subsidiary.

A 2012 analysis by USA Today estimated that the company spent $21.5 million on advertising — including ads aimed at kids run on the Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and social networking sites for teens — during the first eight months of the year.

Operates 4 online-only schools in MN

The corporation operates four online-only schools in Minnesota. Virtual schools typically post lower test scores than other schools because they attract many students who did not thrive in regular classrooms. Still, test scores at the established K12 online partner schools range from middling to rock-bottom.

The Flex model differs in a number of important ways from the programs that have made K12 a controversial presence in public education. For starters, students will spend time in a physical school with teachers. If they go to school alone at home, students in online-only schools often are able to log in and check out.

Michael Horn is the executive director of the Clayton Christensen Institute, a Bay Area think tank focused on disruptive innovation, and a co-author of the widely lauded book “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.”

A for-profit partner can bring tremendous resources to a school, he says. The issue in his view is whether it is able to deliver on its promises.

“The big thing is for Minnesota and the charter authorizer to be really clear about what outcomes they want to see,” he says. “The state has to hold their feet to the fire.”

A Flex program in Silicon Valley is too new to have state ratings. The 5-year-old San Francisco Flex Academy has shown steady growth in reading, history and social sciences. About half of students pass those state-mandated tests, the same percentage as California as a whole. However, just 8 percent of students pass the math exam, versus 50 percent statewide.

California evaluates schools using a formula that’s somewhat like Minnesota’s Multiple Measurements Ratings, which takes into account a school’s growth, poverty level and other factors. California’s goal is for schools to score 800 or higher on its Academic Performance Index. Flex San Francisco scored 647 in 2012 and 733 in 2013.

IQS responsible for performance

Several years ago Minnesota tightened its charter accountability laws. Authorizers like IQS are now responsible for the performance of schools in their portfolio, which must undergo a renewal process every five years.

IQS’ agreement with Flex contains a series of specific goals the school must meet for renewal. Because it expects to enroll many students who start out below grade level, the agreement requires students who have been at Flex for less than three years to show 1.2 years growth per year.

Overall, in the school’s first year 60 percent of students must pass state math tests and 50 percent reading tests. The percentages rise every year to 75 percent and 60 percent, respectively, in the 2018-2019 school year.

In year one, those targets match proficiency rates in Bloomington Public Schools and considerably outpace district-wide averages in Richfield and Minneapolis.

IQS will require those targets to be met, says Wedl. But in fact the authorizer hopes to see more. Its mission is to authorize schools in the “redesign sector” that feature innovations such as teacher-leadership, digital platforms and student autonomy.

Another school in the authorizer’s portfolio, the 2-year-old Venture Academy, is using a different model of hybrid disruption and is achieving outsized results. Many of its online resources, such as the much-touted Kahn Academy, are free.

In addition to gathering good reviews of K12’s curriculum from traditional Minnesota school districts that use it, IQS believes the model has potential to redesign high school to be 10-14, versus 9-12. Flex will bridge this gap in part by featuring more seat time than its traditional neighbors.

“With the K12 piece, they are gearing up for considerably more time to students can get (state academic) standards met so they can access college in the schools,” says Wedl. “Because of the longer year and day they will be ready for full-time post-secondary by grade 11.”

And while IQS is not troubled by Flex’s relationship to K12, it takes very seriously its role as fiscal overseer. “We certainly want to make sure no one is walking out the door with money that’s not being well spent,” says Wedl. “We do provide oversight of the financial management.”

‘Consistently enrolling families’

Families are interested, says Gentle. “We have a long way to go, but we are consistently enrolling families each week,” he says. “I am very optimistic that as more families understand how we will provide a personalized learning experience, we will gain even more traction.  We will also have a facility to showcase in June.”

All of which would have been much more difficult without a partner with deep pockets, he adds. “We need new approaches to teaching and learning that are more adaptive to individual students’ needs,” says Gentle. “Some school districts are slowly making progress in transforming classrooms to do so. But the pace is too slow and kids shouldn’t have to wait for adults to get comfortable with it. We need new kinds of schools now.”

The test, of course, will be what happens when Flex opens, he concludes. “I invite anyone — skeptics, critics, supporters — to come and see us and to talk to me, to the board, to our staff and eventually to our families and our students,” he says. “Ask the hard questions but don’t make up your minds without seeing what this school can offer and what it can do for our kids.”

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Comments (26)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 03/16/2015 - 10:56 am.


    of ALEC’S tentacles

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 03/16/2015 - 12:17 pm.

    The bothersome element here: the “deep-pocketed partner” for this for-profit K12 enterprise is the taxpayer. Using public tax dollars to market a private for-profit company is perhaps the boldest example of what ALEC et al. want, the privatization of, and dollars from, our public school systems.

  3. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 03/16/2015 - 12:50 pm.


    I support the concept of innovative teaching and learning. I even support profit in teaching and learning. As long as the result is actual learning and not at the expense of other kids (typically poor kids). However, I question whether an online only curriculum is actually a good idea. Here are some reasons why:

    1. This type of curriculum does not encourage human interaction–something that is imperative for successful integration into a post secondary academic or work environment. More so now than ever. Further, lack of human interaction appears to encourage cyber bullying and antisocial behavior. Even if the cyber environment in school is monitored to prevent bullying, it does nothing to expose kids to other kids and even teachers. Other humans become increasingly “virtual” to them, and the development of empathy is retarded.

    2. There is a trend toward less and less physical activity at schools. In some schools, physical activity is pretty much limited to moving from classroom to classroom between bells. Now, park them in front of a computer in a “blended learning environment.” I’m not fitness guru myself and could stand to shed a few pounds, but I’m pretty sure that we’re raising a bunch of heart attacks in our classrooms, and in our homes in front of TVs, computers, and video games. And, in any case, kids who don’t get a chance to burn off energy have a hard time concentrating on learning.

    3. Learning at your own pace is a great idea. As long as, in the end, the same amount of learnin’ is had by all. My guess is that, in order to actually allow kids to learn at their own pace, various learning modules are created. While that allows learning at different paces because a single teacher isn’t having to slow down for some students or leave others behind, it does nothing to address issues in HOW students learn. Maybe this is where the actual teachers come in, but it seems to me that it limits actual flexibility (which is what is implied as a benefit of the school based on the name).

    4. The idea that every kid needs to be catered to should go away. We have individualized everything to death to the point that kids that used to have to learn how to deal with their limitations and make the best of their talents are expecting accommodations outside of childhood. Not every kids deserves a gold star for effort in everything. It creates unrealistic expectations when they get into the “real world.” There are enough people looking for work that many employers do not need to spend long hours training an employee “at their own pace.” Employees are expected to learn quickly or lose out. This is unfortunate for bright potential employees who have never had to deal with a figurative crack of a whip in order to succeed.

    I’ll be interested to see how these concepts pan out. I suspect that they’ll succeed in graduating kids and lining pockets, but I doubt that they’ll result in producing a greater percentage of successful citizens. I hope for the best for these kids, but I’m ok with saying “I told you so” too.

  4. Submitted by Jane Cracraft on 03/16/2015 - 01:03 pm.

    Just NYSE

    It looks like K12 is just NYSE. No Nasdaq.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/16/2015 - 01:16 pm.

    Spelling test

    Today’s lesson, students, requires that you spell three words, all of them connected to the proposal to form a new “public charter” school called “Flex Academy.”

    The first word is pernicious. P•E•R•N•I•C•I•O•U•S. “Having a harmful effect, especially in a gradual or subtle way.” The purpose of this enterprise is to undermine genuinely public schools – a stated goal of ALEC, with which the organizers of this proposal are closely allied. Part of the technique for doing so is to emphasize digital “instruction,” which automatically favors student and parent populations that are digitally literate, and which is demonstrably less effective at providing genuinely interactive insntruction. What we’re looking at here is a glorified correspondence course, supplemented by contact with actual human beings. Those human beings will, of course, be non-union, and will be paid significantly lower wages in an occupation that already pays less than most professions. It can also be reliably assumed from the active role of K12 that the curriculum will tilt to the “free market” right wing.

    Today’s second word is greed. G•R•E•E•D. “Intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power, or food.” What’s being proposed is that taxpayer dollars, yours and mine, go into the pockets of shareholders of this for-profit enterprise. Since teacher salaries make up the largest portion of any educational institution, the only way this organization can make money is to keep those salaries as low as possible – lower than the already-low salaries currently paid to teachers in the area. K12 does not exist to provide quality education to students. K12 exists to make money for its shareholders, just like any other corporation, whether it’s 3M or BNSF. If they provide a genuinely excellent education to their students, they’ll be happy to take credit for the innovation and hard work of the employees they’re paying even less than local public school districts, but the education they provide is secondary – secondary – to making money. Like most corporations, they make money by holding costs (i.e. payroll) down and charging as much as the traffic will bear.

    Finally (for today), the third word is fraud. F•R•A•U•D. “Wrongful or criminal deception intended to result in financial or personal gain; a person or thing intended to deceive others, typically by unjustifiably claiming or being credited with accomplishments or qualities.” K12 has repeatedly used part of its funding not just for advertising, which would be bad enough, but for lobbying as well – lobbying that favors the adoption of policies that favor privatization of education, the election of ALEC-friendly legislators, and the funneling of taxpayer dollars meant for truly public education into the pockets of K12 shareholders.

    In an article in Bloomberg Businessweek, John Hechinger pointed out that K12 schools had worse academic records than brick-and-mortar schools in Pennsylvania. The company’s response was that it was enrolling high numbers of poor students – a line that would be scorned as an “excuse” if it were offered by a public school district in the Twin Cities. When K12 enrolled special education students in Pennsylvania, its charges far exceeded those of the local school district for the same services. One family with two children receiving special education services got one hour per child of speech therapy per week, via headset, microphone and web-based conferencing. K12 charged more than $21,000 annually for each child, with most of that money coming from state (i.e., taxpayer) funds. The same once-a-week service from the local school district would have cost $1,500 per child.

    There is nothing to celebrate about the opening of “Flex Academy” unless you think undermining public education while bilking the public is a good thing to do.

    • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/16/2015 - 02:21 pm.

      “K12 charged more than $21,000 annually for each child, with most of that money coming from state (i.e., taxpayer) funds.”

      Well there’s a savings of about $2,500 per student over the current system in MPS & SPPS, right there.

      • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 03/16/2015 - 03:58 pm.

        How’s that a savings?

        A charge of $21500 (as opposed to $1500) for a total of maybe 50 hours a year for speech therapy ON TOP OF the cost of the basic education doesn’t sound like savings to me.

    • Submitted by Joe Musich on 03/16/2015 - 03:01 pm.

      i just read somewhere …

      else that k12 spent 21.5 million dollars in adverstisiing. How much odof the 21,500 will go for advertising ?

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/16/2015 - 04:03 pm.

        How much do you think the public schools spend on lobbyists, each year?

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/16/2015 - 05:25 pm.

          Easy enough to find out

          Easy, that is, for those who care to go beyond “knowing” innuendo.

          According to the State Auditor, the total lobbying expenditures for all public school districts and all school board/district associations in 2013 was $1,596,645. That includes expenses for contract (outside) lobbyists and for district or association employees who lobby.

          Consider that Minnesota spent an average of $11,533 per pupil statewide (some districts more, some less) that year, and that there were 842,854 students enrolled in public schools in Minnesota. That gives total expenditures of $9,702,635,182. Lobbying expenses were 0.016% of that total.

          • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 03/17/2015 - 08:38 am.

            Thank you

            for fact checking statements throughout this message board. It’s nice to have fact and context appended to open-ended argumentative declarations.

          • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/17/2015 - 11:01 am.

            You didn’t supply a link, so I can’t check the discrepancy, RB; maybe you can explain how $11,533 can be an average when two of the largest three districts in the state spend more than twice that?

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/17/2015 - 12:03 pm.


              It is a statewide average. “Average” means that there will be some districts that spend more, some that are less. I got the number here: http://www.parentsunited.org/minnesota-rankings/

              You should understand that “discrepancy” means that there are inconsistent facts. Please tell me what those inconsistencies would be. If the per pupil average is in fact higher than what I cited, then the percentage spent on lobbying is even lower (do you understand how that would work?).

  6. Submitted by Franz Kitzberger on 03/16/2015 - 01:42 pm.

    A Slick, Sleazy, and Glorified Voucher System

    “It bears repeating again and again that the concept of charter schools is a scam and–more significantly–a betrayal of society’s obligation to provide communities filled with economic opportunities to all.”

    That’s Mark Karlin, Editor of Buzzflash at Truthout (Friday, 25 April 2014), writing in his commentary, “Charter School Pirates of Privilege Plunder Public Schools”. Karlin also refers to a Huffington Post article–“Big Profits in Not-for-Profit Charter Schools”–which “lays out one of the most basic complaints about charter schools: The primary parties they enrich are the administrators and nonprofits that run them, along with the for-profit consultants who provide services to allegedly ‘improve’ public education. The article notes that some charter school administrators make ‘very heady profits’ … .”

    There should be an immediate national moratorium put on charters and the entire charter “industry” should be investigated for sedition and other un-American activities. Gov. Dayton should declare this initiative here in Minnesota immediately.

  7. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/16/2015 - 02:18 pm.

    “After a 2011 New York Times investigation found students at an online-only K12 school lagging in proficiency and dropping out in large numbers, shareholders filed a class-action suit against K12.”

    Now *there’s* something the public school stakeholders can take from the private sector; real accountability.

    Imagine what would happen if, after raising taxes to “lower classroom sizes”, a district handed out raises to tenured teachers instead, and then had to face the district’s stakeholders (taxpayers and students’ parents) in court to explain themselves.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/16/2015 - 04:20 pm.

      Good one!

      The suit was filed by a public employees’ pension fund (uh oh). The complaint did not allege an injury caused by the shoddy education children were receiving, but it alleged that false or misleading statements had been made to potential investors. In other words, it’s not that the schools were bad, it’s that management was not telling investors (not parents, investors) that they were that bad.

      The suit was dismissed in 2014. So much for accountability.

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/17/2015 - 08:51 am.

        How disappointing, RB. I guess, any way you slice it, there is no hope for any sort of accountability from public schools.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/17/2015 - 09:39 am.

          What would you prefer?

          There is no court in the United States that allows lawsuits for “educational malpractice.” Would you like that to change? Disappointed parents who blame the schools because their child could not get in to a good enough college? How about the ones who wouldn’t be caught dead near a book but who will sue the schools because their child can’t read well enough? Maybe parents who think the schools turned their child into a multi-cultural atheist could bring an action. Aren’t conservatives supposed to be opposed to the growing litigiousness of society?

          As I pointed out before, the lawsuit against K12 really didn’t care that the customers weren’t getting a satisfactory product. It was all about disclosures on SEC filings.

          • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/17/2015 - 11:09 am.

            Hearing an explanation of just how spending >$20,000 per year / per student buys >40% of students failing to graduate and functionally illiterate would be a great start, RB. The parents of the 25% of graduates who require remedial work before starting college have questions too. The answer might even inform parents of kids who were turned into multi-cultural atheists as a bonus.

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/17/2015 - 11:40 am.

              Listen up

              There is no shortage of explanations for everything you keep repeating. None of them seem to say that collective bargaining and the gay agenda are the sole reasons for underperforming schools. I can see where your dissatisfaction would arise.

  8. Submitted by Jessica Askew on 03/16/2015 - 03:04 pm.

    Venture Academy question

    One line in the article caught my eye: “Another school in the authorizer’s portfolio, the 2-year-old Venture Academy, is using a different model of hybrid disruption and is achieving outsized results.”

    A quick check of the Minnesota Dept of Ed website reveals,

    MCA math scores last year 2014, for free and reduced lunch students
    Minneapolis Public Schools 26.8% proficient, Venture Academy 18.3% proficient

    MCA reading scores 2014, for FRL kids
    MPS 24.4% proficient, Venture Academy 18.1%

    So where are the “outsized results?” This seems to be yet another propaganda piece for charter schools masquerading as a news article.

  9. Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 03/16/2015 - 03:15 pm.

    K12 expenses

    It’s interesting to note that approximately 1/3 of K12’s expenses are “selling and administrative” vs. “instructional and program development”. So about 1/3 of the money coming in from taxpayers goes to feeding the beast rather than actual instruction. Note that the administration cost of the charter school itself is over and above that amount.

    No doubt there is also administrative costs in a public school system. But, from what I remember, it tends to run from 5% at the good end to 10% at the poor end.

  10. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 03/17/2015 - 10:24 am.

    In my years as a college professor,

    I taught students from all sorts of public and private high schools in several states.

    Some students were easy to teach, and others were hard to teach. The ones who were easy to teach were those who had genuine intellectual interests in something–not necessarily my subject– and who read books even when they weren’t required to. The ones who were hard to teach, whether they were from “good” schools or “bad” schools, were the ones who were focused exclusively on grades.

    As a result, I find the whole focus on test scores disturbing. For all I know, the schools that raise the test scores of low-performing students do so by teaching them how to take tests, not by instilling a love of learning and the skills needed for self-education throughout life.

    Anyone who has actually stood at the front of a classroom knows that personal relationships can be the key to effective teaching. You have to gauge the collective “personality” of each class–and they do have group characteristics–and figure out which teaching techniques will work with this particular collection of students. If a student is having trouble, you have to figure out exactly where the stumbling block is and offer suggestions for getting around it. Can computer-based instruction do this?

    I would definitely frown on the idea of teaching foreign languages or English composition exclusively online. Learning to communicate with other people in real time is an essential component of language teaching, which is why modern methods of classroom instruction feature role playing exercises and may enforce a “foreign language only” rule at the more advanced levels. Teaching English composition requires going over each student’s papers carefully and analyzing individual strengths and weaknesses, whether in grammar, rhetoric, or logic.

    My idea school would feature small classes and an inter-discplinary curriculum in which the students learned science, history, geography, civics, literature, composition, music, and art along with basic reading, spelling, and math skills. In other words, it would look like the education that the elites want for their own children. You don’t see “drill and kill” at Blake and Breck. Why should you see it on the near North Side?

    If you argue that children in poor neighborhoods just aren’t as smart as those in the western suburbs, I can argue that some of the children in the western suburbs aren’t any smarter than the lowest-performing children in poor neighborhoods. Back when I was in graduate school, I had a roommate who was a docent at the university’s art museum. She especially enjoyed leading tours for elementary school children from the city’s poorest neighborhoods. They loved seeing the art and often had amazingly perceptive things to say about it. Sadly, by the time they were in junior high, they had somehow been turned off to learning and seemed to trudge silently and resentfully through the museum. If we could maintain the lively minds of the younger children from poor areas, it would be a win-win situation for both the children and our society.

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