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Virtual Teachers Want Real-Life Union

They’re powering up to make a difference in students’ online learning conditions.
Published: 08/18/2016

After nearly a decade as a California Virtual Academy (CAVA) teacher, Kristin Bryant isn’t just a grandma of online education. This sort of education has evolved so quickly, she says, she’s more like a “great grandma,” or wise elder.

So why aren’t CAVA’s managers listening to her, or any of the other frontline educators who actually work with students?

“I would like for them to talk to teachers about what we’re experts in, which is what our students need and how to deliver it to them,” says Bryant.

Over the years, CAVA teachers have seen their workload bulge with a virtual mountain of administrative tasks, even as instructional supplies and support to their online classrooms have shrunk. Lacking typical job protections, many are afraid to speak up or advocate for their students. Fed-up teachers simply quit. 

The ones who remain are more determined than ever to be heard. And that’s why, after months of reaching out across the Internet to talk, strategize, and get organized, CAVA teachers voted in 2014 for a union, which the state labor board certified last year with the California Teachers Association (CTA). Now, union members are pressing for CAVA to drop their costly appeal of the state board’s decision, and sit down with teachers to negotiate a contract that puts students and educators first.

“The way our school is being managed right now, it’s not successful,” says Sarah Vigrass, a 10-year CAVA veteran. That doesn’t mean online education can’t work, she adds. It does mean that a topnotch education for students needs to be the first priority, and that teachers must be listened to. 

Follow the Money…

CAVA is California’s largest online public charter school, serving nearly 15,000 students. Its appeal to many families is its flexibility. In Bryant’s AP psychology class, for example, her students include young Southern California divers who spend their mornings jack-knifing into pools. Traditional schools might not work for them, or for the ones who are dual-enrolled in community college, but an online education allows students to attend their virtual classrooms each day at their convenience.

That same flexibility is attractive to many teachers, too. Bryant, a mother of four, can answer students’ texts while her 1-year-old twins nap. During breast cancer treatments in 2013, she graded papers from the chemo chair. 

But unlike some other online schools, CAVA is managed by a for-profit company, K12 Inc., whose bottom-line interests can conflict with the needs of students. A March 2015 report from the policy institute In The Public Interest (ITPI) notes this inherent clash: “One of CAVA’s functions is to act as revenue producer for its manager and primary vendor K12 California LLC (a publicly traded company). This can put company leaders in a position where they must choose between maximizing profit to fulfill their responsibility to shareholders and fully investing in the education of public school children.”

The report also notes that in every year since CAVA launched in 2002, except 2013, the school has had more dropouts than graduates. Between 2010 and 2014, its overall graduation rate was 36 percent, compared to 78 percent for California as a whole. Meanwhile, in 2013 alone, K12 Inc. received $95 million in public funding—of which it spent a little more than half on program expenses, such as investments in technology or teachers’ salaries. The other $47 million was revenue, including more than $5 million that the company counted as sheer profit, the ITPI report found. 

These problems haven’t gone unnoticed. Last September, K12 Inc. was subpoenaed by an arm of the state attorney’s office as part of an investigation into for-profit online charter schools. More recently, an investigative series published by the San José Mercury News questioned why K12 Inc. is raking in California taxpayers’ money—more than $300 million to date—while their schools show low student graduation rates, a lack of accountability, and working conditions that include telling teachers to inflate attendance and enrollment records. 

“There are a lot of students for whom the traditional brick and mortar school is just not appropriate, and an online virtual education provides an alternative that allows them to succeed,” said CAVA special education teacher Mark Holtebeck in December to the California Educator. “However, CAVA and K12 are damaging our students’ education. They treat educators as disposable commodities, and they are cheapening our work by profiting off the public trust. We need this to change.”

Students First

On a recent morning in her home office in Brea, Calif., as she “live” lectures on notable events in psychological studies, Bryant sounds like any other teacher preparing students for the Advanced Placement exam in that subject. “Let’s talk about Milgram’s shock study,” she says, as she mouse-clicks on a virtual stylus to draw the famous study’s setup. “I know you all love my little drawings!”

But when Bryant types “goodbye,” her workday is far from over. She still has to chase down a virtual library of student attendance records, required parent or “instructional coach” reports, assessment results, and other bureaucratic checklist items. These tasks take about half of her working hours. It’s time that could be spent grading papers, responding to students’ texts (“they text a lot!” says Bryant), preparing for the next lecture, and providing more intensive aid to her students who are struggling.  

By assigning administrative tasks to teachers, instead of hiring attendance specialists or other education support professionals who typically do these critical, but non-instructional jobs in regular schools, CAVA saves money. In fact, the ITPI report notes that CAVA has just eight support employees for its nearly 15,000 students. That’s fewer than you’d likely find at just one 1,000-student high school.

Cost-cutting measures also include a growing lack of instructional materials, Vigrass notes. “When I first started working here, our students got huge science and art kits, and I was so thrilled by what they were provided. Now parents are expected to provide the instructional materials,” she says. “They’ve also stopped giving parents teachers’ guides—and these are parents who are expected to be instructional guides! They are not given the tools that would help their child learn.” 

Unfortunately, many CAVA teachers are afraid to shake the boat too much because they lack the protections of a collectively bargained contract, which typically include due-process job protections. Instead, frustrated teachers just walk away for more stable (and better paying) positions. 

“We have such high turnover, it’s really hurting our kids,” Vigrass says. “We have students who have had as many as five teachers, in the same class, in one year.” 

By prioritizing profits over pupils, and by failing to invest in its classrooms, CAVA and K12 Inc., are failing students and teachers, educators say. To make that point more clearly, in December a handful of CAVA teachers traveled to K12 Inc.’s board meeting in Washington, D.C., to hand-deliver a report card of straight F’s.  

Meanwhile, even as they press for proper investments in their classrooms, CAVA teachers continue to do their jobs, dedicating long hours to the success of their students. At the conclusion of Bryant’s recent psychology lecture, she tells her students, “Let’s talk for a minute about the practice essay before I let you go. Don’t worry if you don’t do as well as you’d like—the point is to help you to get to where you want to be.”

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