Along with many former coworkers, I only found out we were working for a for-profit school when I was denied credit for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. This program, which seemed like a dream come true for teachers and others struggling to pay off school loans, was out of reach. We felt duped.
A “Free Online Public School”
I was recently divorced and returning to the workforce after being home for my children’s early years. I had been substitute teaching, but the pay was unsteady and stopped completely in the summer. Without my ex-husband paying for housing, I needed to teach full-time again.
It was my ex who shared that he had seen a job post from a new school in the area. It was a “free online public school,” something entirely new to me, but it sounded ideal. I could work from the office, and eventually from my home.
I could schedule my duties with some flexibility; as long as I taught my classes at the same time each day. I could volunteer in my own children’s schools. Getting to be active in my kids’ schools while working full-time felt like a win. I took a chance and applied.
It wasn’t until after a few months on the job that I realized how far from that ideal the job actually was. The company is able to take advantage of teachers and staff by offering remote work to those who have life circumstances requiring a work-from-home job.
Wages in the for-profit “free public school”
It took a couple of months for me to see how little I was actually being paid since I didn’t qualify for benefits right away. As soon as payroll deductions for healthcare started coming out of my wages, I had barely enough to keep a roof over my head.
Calculating my bills, I realized that after rent, gas, phone, internet, electricity, etc., I had only $2.00 for non-essential expenditures! If I needed an oil change or a new pair of pants; if I got a flat tire or had an emergency, I would need to put it on a credit card or borrow from family.
I was a full time public school teacher, and I couldn’t cover the bare minimum. I made the decision to file for assistance and was grateful to qualify for food stamps to help make ends meet.
Parents and teachers sold a lie
Families are told they’re receiving services specialized for their children in a public school setting, but that is a lie. In online public programs not run directly by the local school district, families are actually enrolling their students in for-profit private schools. These operate outside of the rules, regulations and standards that true public schools in Washington must enforce. Teachers who work in these online schools are told they’re being hired at a “public” school. They might hear the term “business model,” but the fact that they are working in a for-profit organization is not revealed.
Workload that serves neither teachers nor students
I was teaching a class of about 45 for a few years, but at times the number of students in my class increased to almost 60. Managing more than 30 students in a virtual setting creates a tremendous workload for the teacher in terms of grading as well as providing individualized intervention and support.
Once class size reaches a certain level, teachers can only treat students as data points and not as individuals. There is not enough time to make meaningful contact with each one of the students. When trying to do even the minimum to support a class well — considering the time to prep lessons, grade assignments, teach class and check-in with students — it took us up to 10 or 12 hours of work daily. Which still left us doing schoolwork on the weekend.
At the secondary level, caseloads are upwards of 300 students. Teachers in these online schools who concede that they cannot manage the workload are told to work longer hours, told that they must not be right for the job, or are dismissed.
Extra funds go to the corporation
Teachers in Washington receive an additional pay of about $140 per student per month for class size over the maximum allowed, by grade level–around 24 students. The “free online public school” receives money for each additional student they serve, but teachers in these for-profit virtual schools receive none of this additional pay. Neither I nor the teachers I worked with ever received a penny when we had more students than would be allowed in public school classrooms. The corporation keeps the funds and doesn’t compensate the employees who provide the services.
A personalized system to determine pay
When they are hired at the “free online public school,” teachers are told about a merit pay incentive that’s supposed to honor “hard working” employees. There was no salary scale based on years of service like unified school districts have. Instead, staff was hired in at a wage the company decided on..
The “merit” increase one could earn depended on points. Even though an employee could in theory earn up to “4” on their evaluation, no one ever received top marks. And since any possibility of a salary increase depended entirely on the supervisor’s evaluation, employees never complained for fear of a bad review.
One teacher shared this truth on indeed.com: “[The] principal and her admin team are very condescending. Only if you were one of her favorites did you get extra pay or benefits. Everyone else was beneath her.”
Huge disparities in teacher salaries
Two of the largest for-profit virtual school corporations operating in Washington offer wages well below those of public school districts. According to zippia.com, the average annual salary for teachers at the company called “K-12 Schools” is $44,387; for teachers at Washington Connections Academy (WACA) it’s $42,687.
In stark contrast to these teacher salaries, board members at the parent companies are lavishly compensated. Stride Inc. owns K-12 Schools; its CEO earns $7.6 million annually while other board members earn around $2.5 million dollars each per year. Pearson Publishing in the UK owns Washington Connections Academy. Its CEO takes home the equivalent of about $14 million in US dollars.
My final salary as a teacher with 13 years of service and a Masters’ Degree in Education, after five years with the for-profit virtual school I worked for was half what it would have been in a traditional public school. The salary for a teacher with an MA and 13 years teaching in the Tumwater School District, which is where the for-profit school has its main office, is over $90,000 a year.
Even using the payscale for Mary M. Knight, the first School District to host this particular for-profit virtual school, if I had been paid the same as the teachers actually working directly for the Mary M Knight SD, my salary would have been about $77,000, or close to $30,000 more annually.
Obstructing union efforts
There is no collective bargaining or representation to advocate for fair compensation and working conditions. Though their efforts have not received headlines, virtual school teachers have been trying to unionize. As reported in The Stand, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) supported the efforts of teachers to organize at one of the “free online public schools” last spring.
According to a former online school staff member, the effort failed by only three votes. One of the teachers leading the effort with SEIU said that the principal called an all-staff meeting right before the vote. She came to the virtual meeting crying, and through tears told the employees that she would have to let many of them go if they unionized.
Ilana Smith is the pen name of someone who now goes to a school house where she teaches her students in an actual classroom.
Sources available online at www.olywip.org
What needs to happen
It is imperative that the veil concealing for-profit on-line schools in Washington be lifted. When people are hired to teach at a public school funded by taxpayer money, they deserve to know if they are truly working at a public school, or if their prospective employer is a for-profit organization disguised as a public school. Families should know where their choice transfer dollars go. Private, for-profit school employers must inform prospective teachers of that fact, including that they will be denied government benefits available to public school teachers.
Virtual schools run by many public school districts keep essential educational dollars in our public school system and in our communities. However, in some districts, the virtual schools give the district hosting their program only a small portion of the funding they receive in order to be able to operate in Washington State. Families deserve disclosure of a school’s for-profit or non-profit status prior to finalizing enrollment when choosing a “choice transfer” option.