If your local public high school has empty seats, the district might lay off teachers. If it's operated by K12 Inc., the company will take out an ad on CNN, The Cartoon Network or VampireFreaks.com and fill those seats.
An analysis by USA TODAY finds that online charter schools have spent millions in taxpayer dollars on advertising over the past five years, a trend that shows few signs of abating. The primary and high schools -- operated online by for-profit companies but with local taxpayer support -- are buying TV, radio, newspaper and Internet ads to attract students, even as brick-and-mortar public schools in the districts they serve face budget crunches.
Virtual schools have become lightning rods for critics who say their operators are profiting from students' dissatisfaction with neighborhood schools, but don't produce better results. Supporters say the schools, operating in more than 30 states, are giving kids and families second chances.
Nationwide, about 275,000 K-12 students attend school online full-time, according to the evergreen Education Group, a Colorado consulting firm. Many virtual students are former home-schoolers taking advantage of the schools' public funding — virtual schools typically get most of the per-pupil allowance that a local school does.
The USA TODAY analysis finds that 10 of the largest for-profit operators have spent an estimated $94.4 million on ads since 2007. The largest, Virginia-based K12 Inc., has spent about $21.5 million in just the first eight months of 2012.
The analysis is based on ad buys and rates compiled by Kantar Media, a New York-based provider of "media and marketing intelligence," but the figures are only estimates. In an interview, K12 spokesman Jeff Kwitowski wouldn't say whether the estimates are accurate or provide actual K12 figures. But he said the company's agreements with local school districts and charter school authorizers require K12 to publicize its programs, often over large geographic areas.
We try our best to ensure that all families know that these options exist," Kwitowski said. "It's really about the parents' choice — they're the ones that make the decision about what school or program is the best fit for their child."
A look at where K12 is placing the ads suggests that the company is also working to appeal to kids: Among the hundreds of outlets tapped this year, K12 has spent an estimated $631,600 to advertise on Nickelodeon, $601,600 on The Cartoon Network and $671,400 on MeetMe.com, a social networking site popular with teens. It also dropped $3,000 on VampireFreaks.com, which calls itself "the Web's largest community for dark alternative culture."
Kwitowski declined to say what percentage of K12's per-pupil expenses goes to advertising, but Kevin Welner, a University of Colorado professor who tracks virtual schools, estimated that K12 is on pace this year to spend about $340 per student on advertising, or about 5.2% of its per-pupil public expenditures.
Welner, who directs the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, which has been critical of virtual schools, said that "will put immense pressure on other schools to compete by diverting similar amounts of money to advertising." He estimated that if every public school spent just $250 per student, taxpayers would pay more than $12 billion annually. "That's a lot of tax money spent on something so far removed from actually helping children learn," he said.
So far, 2012 has been a rocky year for K12, which operates in more 32 states and over 2,000 school districts. In spite of healthy earnings, it has been the subject of several investigations. The Florida Department of Education's inspector general is looking into whether K12 illegally used uncertified teachers and whether it asked others to lie about how many students they oversee. One U.S. lawmaker, Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., last month called for a federal investigation into the charges.
"We're leaders in the digital learning space and with that comes additional scrutiny," said Kwitowski, "but we welcome that."