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What the Mercury News Didn’t Want Readers To Know About California Virtual Academies

The Mercury News published several recent stories critical of K12 and the online charter schools California Virtual Academies (CAVA).  The paper claims to have established certain “findings,” however these are largely based on incomplete and inaccurate reporting. It is a classic case of advocacy journalism:  ignore key facts and information that do not support a desired narrative.

For example, on student attendance, the Mercury News stated that CAVA schools claim funding for students who log on for one minute.  (It happens to be the exact same charge made by the California Teachers Association in its campaign to disparage the CAVA charter schools and force them to unionize).  It is not true.

A log on alone—regardless of duration—would not be submitted by CAVA nor eligible for funding. Under California’s Independent Study law, a student’s education activities are used to determine attendance – not seat time.  Teachers at CAVA schools are required to determine the days the student was working and the education activities completed during the work period (both online and offline). The Mercury News simply ignores the latter.

So what did the paper rely on to support its “one minute” attendance claim? A snippet from a teacher training audio recording taken wildly out of context and huge pile of hearsay from the teachers union’s organizing committee.

More amazing is what the paper did not report.  None of its articles even mention California’s Independent Study law under which the CAVA schools, and other online school programs, operate.  It gets worse.  Not only does the paper ignore the law, it ignores the written guidelines provided by the California Department of Education (CDE) for how independent study programs determine and report attendance, including specific guidance for charter schools operating under independent study.

Further, the paper disregards the CAVA schools’ approved policies regarding attendance which are consistent with California’s independent study law and the guidelines from CDE.  Here is an excerpt from CAVA @ San Mateo’s Parent Student Handbook:

“In order for a student to receive attendance credit for a given school day, the student must be actively engaged in completing assignments given by the teacher on that school day…At the end of each learning period, the teacher evaluates the work or work products completed by the student and determines how many attendance days can be credited for the learning period.”

CAVA teachers are trained on how to accurately credit verifiable attendance consistent with California’s independent study rules for non-classroom based charter schools.  Teachers sign Attendance Agreement forms demonstrating that they understand the policies and agree to accurately credit verifiable attendance for each student.  Attendance reports at CAVA schools are regularly audited by independent, licensed auditors, and submitted to the CA Department of Education, per state law.

All of these facts are either public information or were provided to the Mercury News, but were left out of its articles.  Rather than accurately and honestly report the facts, the lead reporter doubled down, repeating the same false claims about CAVA’s attendance policies, and firing off a broad email to California legislators that read like something a lobbyist from a special interest group would send, asking if Assemblymembers “believe an audit of the attendance records is needed to ensure taxpayers haven’t been defrauded.”

Well, independent audits on CAVA’s attendance are conducted regularly and sent to the CDE but nobody would know since the Mercury News didn’t report that or any of the other important facts and information detailed above.  But why let the law and those other pesky facts get in the way of a good story?  It’s no wonder trust in the mainstream media is at an all-time low.

Also overlooked by the Mercury News were the most important stakeholders: the nearly 14,000 students at CAVA schools.  Here the reporter utterly failed at any semblance of neutrality by dismissing the predominant views of the thousands of CAVA families and hundreds of CAVA teachers who are committed to their schools.

Why do parents choose CAVA? Because children who enroll in CAVA are often dealing with challenging circumstances:  bullying, special needs, autism, medical issues, academic issues, and many others. Parents are looking for alternatives and the freedom to choose the school they believe is best for their children.  For many families, schools like CAVA are the only public school option they have.  Take it away and they have nothing. They would be forced back into schools they fled.

Next week, over 800 students across California will graduate from CAVA schools (over 200 graduated last semester).  Real kids. Real lives. Real successes.  I wonder, will the Mercury News tell their stories?

About The Author

Jeff Kwitowski

Jeff Kwitowski is Senior Vice President of Public Affairs & Policy Communications at K12 Inc. Since 2003, he has been a central part of K12’s public affairs team with a special focus on public policy and advocacy. Additionally, he has supported K12’s state and federal government affairs efforts, working with policymakers and education leaders to develop and advocate for policy frameworks that expand school options, digital learning, and parent choice in education. He served as a member of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning’s Issues and Advocacy Committee, and participated in the national Digital Learning Now Initiative in developing policy frameworks and goals for advancement of digital learning. Prior to K12, he served as communications director and advisor to former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and former U.S. Congressman and HUD Secretary Jack Kemp at Empower America, a Washington, DC-based public policy organization. He graduated with a B.A. in Political Science and History from St. John Fisher College in Rochester, NY.

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