From China to Chicago, K12 Inc. markets more than virtual schools

Sep 30, 2013 by


The bipartisan education reform movement sweeping the nation calls for opening up public schools to free-market competition. That has meant sending billions of tax dollars to private, for-profit companies to educate kids.

But the companies do more than pay teachers, develop curriculum and buy supplies with all that revenue.

They use it as a launchpad for new products, new brands and new markets.


Consider K12 Inc., the nation’s largest private operator of public schools. It runs 54 online schools in 33 states and Washington, D.C. But it also runs a tutoring center in the United Arab Emirates. It sells courses to the Cook County correctional system in Chicago. It’s making a big push to get its new online curriculum for toddlers into Head Start preschools for low-income kids.

“These companies are invited in to bring an entrepreneurial spirit to education” — and they’re doing just that, said Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University.


Advocates argue that the energy the private sector brings to the table will transform education for the better. Miron, however, worries that the relentless drive to grow and conquer new markets distracts companies like K12 from the job the public pays them to do — teach kids to read, write and reason.


K12 Executive Chairman Nathaniel Davis says he remains intently focused on his No. 1 goal: “To make sure we have everyone in the organization focused on the best academic results for students.”


But he also has to report to investors who expect quarter after quarter of strong growth. Here’s a look at how K12 has expanded beyond its well-known role of running virtual public schools:



The Chinese-language website, splashed with photos of beaming teens, promises to make dreams come true.


For $6,995 a year, foreign students can enroll in the K12 International Academy, a private American high school that’s based in Virginia but conducted entirely online. Pass six online classes and a transcript review of prior coursework and a teen from Beijing or Shanghai can receive an American high school diploma.


“Want to apply to the top 50 most prestigious colleges in the United States?” the website asks. “No problem, K12 will satisfy your desire!”


K12 doesn’t break down how many of the 4,500 students enrolled in the International Academy last year were foreign nationals (or how many attended just part-time). But the company says it has significant enrollment from China, Mexico, Brazil and Dubai, where K12 runs a tutoring center at a university complex so students can get face-to-face help, for an extra fee.



For foreign teens, the appeal is clear, said Bruce Davis, K12’s executive vice president for worldwide business development. (He is not related to Executive Chairman Nathaniel Davis.)


“If you’re sitting in Malaysia in an unpronounceable government-run high school … and you want to apply to Stanford, you and 10,000 other perfect Asian students with 4.0 GPAs who are all concert violinists and captains of the soccer team will all be in the same pile — and Stanford can only take 20 perfect Asian students,” Bruce Davis said. “But if you have a U.S. degree and some AP classes, that gets you in a very different pile.”


That may not always be true. Many college admissions officers discount online classes as less rigorous and more open to cheating, and they would be far more impressed with a solid transcript and strong test scores from the student’s native country, said Dale Gough, director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.


Davis acknowledged that it’s impossible to verify who does the work in an online course. But he said he believes cheating is rare. When it does happen, he said, it likely involves parents helping their children — and “that’s not necessarily bad, as long as they’re making sure the kids pick up the information along the way.”


Davis said K12 funded its initial forays abroad with revenue from its public, tax-funded schools in the U.S., but Nathaniel Davis said the startup revenue came from investors. In any case, the business unit is now self-supporting. Indeed, it’s growing fast: Revenue for the company’s private-pay division, which includes the International Academy and two other online private schools, soared 13 percent last fiscal year.


Expanding the brand


Websites for Insight Schools, a network of tuition-free, online public schools, serve up a five-question quiz, “Is an online high school right for you?”


Respond that you don’t care about earning a high-school diploma and don’t like studying at home and you’re still told: “Based on your answers, Insight Schools may be a good fit for you.” The sites also feature video testimony from two students who emphasize that studying at Insight leaves them with ample free time for video games, music and hanging out with friends.


Insight is a division of K12 Inc. and represents a key element of the company’s diversification strategy: Developing new brands of schools in addition to its trademark Virtual Academies.

via From China to Chicago, K12 Inc. markets more than virtual schools – Stephanie Simon –

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1 Comment

  1. Avatar

    Hi Stephanie,

    I am an education activist and blogger, co-author of Teachers’ Letters to Bill Gates.

    I have 2 questions:

    1. Do you know of any financial connections between Bill Gates and K12, Inc?
    2. How do we search for who pays these lobbyists?

    Thank you kindly for you investigative work on public education.

    Susan DuFresne
    Integrated Kindergarten Teacher

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