Inside an Online Charter School: Labeling Kids “Disabled” for Profit

Julie Greene, MFA
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Editor’s Note: As of 2017, more than a quarter million children in grades K-12 were enrolled in 528 full-time online schools, also known as e-learning or cyber schools—a trend that continues to grow. For parents with children in the mental health system or who struggle with school for one reason or another, this option can look attractive. As this essay suggests, some virtual programs may not be what they seem.

I was dying for a career change. My current job in customer service was a good way to make money but I didn’t feel like I was doing enough to make positive changes in the world. What about teaching? I took the plunge and posted my resume at the job portal Care.com. It didn’t take long before an agency with a dubious-sounding name contacted me via email about a “Virtual Personal Care Assistant” position.

Considering that this agency, which I’ll call ABC, claims to service “hundreds of students” across my state, I was surprised to find no information about them online or anywhere else. They told me that they needed someone to service the online Agora Cyber Charter School and sent me a contract immediately. I was baffled as to why they would hire someone without interviewing them.

A quick glance at employee reviews on the Indeed and Glassdoor job sites gave me a grim picture of this school. While a few disgruntled employees are to be expected, the amount of dissatisfaction with the position was too high for comfort. Still, the pay was much higher than I expected—over $20 an hour, according to my contract. The minimum wage in my state is $7.25 an hour, and this was an entry-level job. As a psychiatric survivor with almost no work history, I couldn’t afford to pass it up.

Red Flags

They asked me to get fingerprinted, which I paid for, and also told me they needed an FBI background check and another background check that showed I had never abused a child. That was standard. But the contract quite clearly stated that I was not permitted, at any time, to discuss my pay with anyone.

The reason why became clearer when I dug deeper into the internet. I found out that the students I would be “servicing,” had been placed on Medicaid, and that Medicaid would be paying my salary. More digging into this school’s murky history told me everything I suspected. In 2009, Agora had been charged with fraud and bilking taxpayers to make huge profits off an improperly managed charter school.

Pathologizing Students

Still, I signed my contract but couldn’t start working until ABC explained exactly what I was supposed to be doing. After at least a week, the agency called me, apologized for not interviewing me (likely wanting me to stay quiet on the issue) and then outlined my job tasks. I was supposed to “follow” (sit in on) the students in their remote classes, observing and documenting what they did. I was also to prompt them by encouraging them to participate, communicate with their family and teachers, and act as a liaison and advocate for the students and their families. I stated that I would be very happy to do this! It seemed like a great job for a person with my personal history.

Still, the job title, Virtual Personal Care Assistant, eluded me. An online search for Virtual PCA resulted in nothing useful. A PCA normally helps a person, often elderly, with household chores such as laundry, and might assist with toileting and other aspects of personal care. Nothing about what I was doing seemed like “personal care,” especially since the students all lived so far away there was no possibility I could visit them at home. My position wasn’t at all medical, and yet Medicaid, which pays for medical expenses, would be paying me handsomely. I wondered if I was called a Virtual PCA because doing so would make Medicaid billing easier.

The agency sent me .pdf files of the individualized educational program (IEP) documentation for each student. The students were rated on numeric scales determined by behavioral testing. There were recommendations and goals listed for each student. Most of these recommendations were related not to reading, writing, and ’rithmetic but to behavior control and obedience to adults.

Judging from these IEP documents, you would think the kids were so disabled that they couldn’t put a sentence together. The school’s behavior specialists had tested the children for any disorder they could think of including autism, and any learning disability they could think of, including “emotional disturbance” and “inappropriate language and behavior.”

The documents reminded me that back in my psychiatric patient days, I had once had an IEP during grad school. My therapist had written that due to my debilitating “medications,” I might get tired sometimes and that if I had trouble staying awake, I should be excused from classes. These students, however, weren’t like that: When I “met” with them and their parents over the phone, I heard a different story.

The school seemed to be working very hard to prove through testing that the kids were disabled and to get them certified as such. I realized that doing this was to the school’s advantage, since getting the kids qualified for Medicaid meant they could exploit it for profit. As one teacher later pointed out to me, “This is the last stop for many of these kids. No other school would take them.” However, I later learned the reason the students had been kicked out of their previous schools was that they were being bullied.

Robotic Education

Later, I learned from one of the behavior specialists I worked with that she had tested the students virtually—that is, through the computer interface.  She told me that one student had excused himself in the middle of the test and then returned 90 minutes later. From this, she had concluded he must have been “distracted” all that time. I was laughing inside. Didn’t she realize he was pulling the wool over her eyes?

As I soon learned, this kind of trickery happens frequently in cyber schools, which use the Blackboard interface for teaching all classes. It couldn’t be further from a real classroom environment: The kids can hear, but not see, the teacher except for his or her picture. The teacher runs through a pre-designed PowerPoint presentation provided, like all the materials, by the school’s parent company, K12. To respond to the teacher or otherwise participate,  the kids mostly sent text messages.

In this environment, most teachers had an underhanded way of taking attendance in this environment, such as asking the kids to post a smiley as proof they were still there. The kids knew each teacher’s patterns well, however, and knew how to sneak out of class. They were far smarter and more insightful than the school ever gave them credit for.

Growing Doubts

After I had been working with Agora for about a week, the employment agency finally wanted me to fill out an application and send a list of references. They also wanted to verify a job I’d held nearly 40 years ago and said they needed a recommendation from a recent job that had nothing to do with children.

Things got even weirder after I pointed out a potential issue with one of the students and informed the behavior specialists that I was concerned about things happening at home. The specialists insisted that none of my observations were relevant. “The important thing is behavior correction,” they told me. I strongly objected and even offered to speak regularly with the student and his parent to see how things were going. The specialists responded by flooding me with emails insisting that I cease communication with the child’s parent. This upset and confused me because my job description specified that I was to communicate with the family. I phoned the hiring agency and told them my concerns. Sadly, the agency deferred to the school.

Here I’d thought this would be my chance to make positive changes in children’s lives, but this school was preventing me from doing anything productive. One of the teachers summed up my role like this: “It’s your job to make sure the kids stay in class.”

Another colleague insisted, “You must keep track of the kids. The school is responsible for them. What if they go out and rob a bank?” This made no sense since she had already told me that these children were disabled and incapable.

Fishy Business?

I soon discovered something else that looked fishy after I began to poke around on EasyTrac, an interface I’d been instructed to use and to log my services; that is, my observations and the “prompts” I was giving to each child. To log in, I had to select the school I was working for from a list of public and charter schools across the state and country. Once I had picked Charter, and then Agora and was logged in, I noted a tab off to the right that said: “About PCG.” Where had I heard those initials before? I clicked on the tab and discovered they stood for Public Consulting Group.

Now I remembered: I had seen that name in a 2013 NPR series titled “Unfit for Work: The Startling Rise of Disability in America.” The article, by Chana Joffe Walt, had stirred immense controversy when it was released. Scroll down in the story and you’ll find details about PCG, a “private company that states pay to comb their welfare rolls and move as many people as possible onto disability.”

Joffe reported, “A person on welfare costs a state money. That same resident on disability doesn’t cost the state a cent, because the federal government covers the entire bill for people on disability…. The company gets paid by the state every time it moves someone off of welfare and onto disability. In recent contract negotiations with Missouri, PCG asked for $2,300 per person.”

The story also discusses how growing numbers of children with learning struggles are exploited by branding them disabled and enrolling them in a special program providing monthly Social Security checks.

I knew as soon as I saw PCG listed in EasyTrac that I had discovered a potential gold mine of corruption.  While I was in there, I found I could also access the “progress reports” of some of the behavior specialists, so I took a peek. While my notes about my students were detailed, describing my observation of real events, the other providers provided only perfunctory data such as “turned in one assignment,” or “responded to adult in ten seconds.”

The Last Straws

The conflict I felt between my conscience and the reality of working at Agora was getting worse. I knew I had been hired to act as a go-between, but now  I realized they expected me to play the role of cop. What could I do, though? I tried (and am still trying) to contact the state Department of Education and other organizations—all in vain.

There were days that I had to walk away from the computer and pull myself together time and time again. Finally, on a Friday afternoon, I reached my limit. One of the teachers verbally abused me. If he was treating me this way, how did he treat his students? I was reminded, then, of the verbal abuse I had endured in a hospital back when I was still in the mental health system. I couldn’t take it anymore.

My phone rang. It was my friend. She was understandably concerned about me. I felt embarrassed to get choked up in tears over the phone, but I couldn’t stop crying. We concluded that I should quit. The question wasn’t if, but when. Could I tolerate one more week, and during that time gather as much information about the company as I could?

I had barely stopped crying when the agency called me about a complaint I’d made about Agora. They attempted to misinterpret my prior complaints about the school, twisting my words by saying, “We’re sorry the children upset you.”

Again and again, I told them (on a recorded line), “No, it’s not the kids that bug me. Of course not! It’s the school. The school wants a cop. They don’t want a person who cares about the kids. What this school is doing is just plain wrong!”

At that point, I quit. Or maybe they fired me, I’m not sure. It didn’t matter: I just wanted to move on, although I felt very sad that I never got to say goodbye to the kids and their parents.

On the Record

Unfortunately, the agency kept me on the phone, threatening me over and over that HIPAA, the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, prevented me from exposing what I knew about my ex-employer. HIPAA regulates the medical information we share with each other and the public. It does not state that we cannot reveal information about our providers.

Nevertheless, the agency insisted that I “shred all documents.” I did not actually have any paper documents. Since I was not providing any medical services, wasn’t it FERPA I’d be violating if I revealed any academic details about the children?

I told them (twice for emphasis), “I still have my memory. I can shred any documents you want. But you cannot shred me.”

Before I could be released from my job, though, I had to finish up my documentation on EasyTrac. I did not spare anything. I even documented the verbal abuse I had to endure at the hands of a cyber teacher. I don’t believe the school can change what I wrote, so a permanent record of what happened now exists.

Later, when the agency wrote to me assuring me I would be paid, they pasted into the email two paragraphs from my contract. They included these words: “Disclosing confidential information or improperly discussing the client condition is unacceptable practice and are terms for termination.”

Well? My job is over, so I have little to fear. But the agency, and the school, certainly does.

44 COMMENTS

  1. Kinda feels like an episode of Whistleblower reading this. Good job, Juile- on writing it, on investigating, on keeping good records, but especially on being a voice against systemic abuse. Thank you for taking on the heroic duty of standing up for what’s right.

    And… I almost missed this blog. Yours seem to get posted with very little time to be read, commented on, discussed before the next blog pushes you off the stage. I wish MIA would give *each* blog its due.

  2. Julie thank you for alerting us to this phenomenon. I for one knew nothing about this. Now, it will remain on my radar. I would be anxious to hear any more info anyone has about this.

    And I hope this can be an example of the kind of articles we should be seeing, protecting the would be victims, rather than those which offer support for the mental health system and psychotherapy and recovery.

    Books:
    https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0345806352/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0

    https://www.amazon.com/Undoing-Demos-Neoliberalisms-Stealth-Revolution/dp/1935408542/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3JOSO643JSMAY&keywords=undoing+the+demos+neoliberalism%27s+stealth+revolution&qid=1562105431&s=books&sprefix=undoing+the+de%2Cstripbooks%2C194&sr=1-1

      • Yes, there’s a bigger story here. Namely, the incentives public schools and parents have to get their kid a psychiatric or learning-disabled label–especially if they are financially strapped. It’s not that some kids don’t have real problems, but one shouldn’t have to stretch the truth or fabricate in order to bring in the funds…only to then marginalize the students, as happened in this case.

  3. Good on you Julie for standing up to and speaking out about these offensive practices. They don’t care about the children. It’s all about the money.

    You write very well, you make a story line easy to follow and definitely keep it interesting.

  4. Thanks for your investigative journalism, Julie. The attacks on our children, by those who want to label them “mentally ill,” for profit, is just appalling. I had to take my child out of the public schools, because our school social workers even want to drug the well behaved children, because they get 100% on their state standardized tests. WTF! Our “mental health” workers have run amok!

    • Yes, that’s one of the reasons this story is important! Parents may pull their children from public, or even private school thinking an online school is the way to go. And there are certainly many legitimate ones. But if you wander your way into the wrong one, your child could get a new label and a lousy education.

  5. This is scary stuff. Thanks for writing this, Julie. Very informative.
    There’s so much wrong here I don’t know where to begin. I was bullied throughout most of my years in school. The school ignored it (even though the bus drivers heard girls threatening to “kick my ass” on a daily basis) and my parents ignored it. This was late 70s early 80s. Flash forward to around 2006… after having ECT/getting a borderline diagnosis etc I applied for SSDI after 14 years of full time employment. I received disability the first time I applied. The government deemed me “permanently disabled”. That term had a real powerful effect on my psyche. I’m still on disability.
    Reading your article, it made me wonder, how much worse would it have been if, as a child, I had been bullied and then labeled disabled because I’d been bullied (and because someone had a financial incentive to label me disabled and take me out of school)? As an adult at least I had the ability to take the label with a grain of salt, but as a child…? Like, the bullying isn’t enough, now you’re disabled, kid. Because somebody is going to make money (but the kid doesn’t know that part).
    If the USA is the greatest country and this is happening to our children, God help the whole world.

  6. Julie, what always bothered me in leaving a place with so called issues sometimes voluntarily or sometimes because of politics, or other because of draconian paperwork requirements or even those times when the transition to end employment was smooth-
    I always felt pain for those folks left behind. It was both the folks and sometimes the staff. But especially if children were involved, another loss to lives of too too many losses and bad luck. So it was trauma for me as well.
    Damn I couldn’t do what I could have done or wanted to do. Stymied by the folks who only see money really I don’t have any other explanation other than greed or maybe zombie hood.
    Take care of yourself too. The yuck factor spreads.
    The other issue of bullying. Online bullying happens and is nefarious because so hard to prove and NOBODY wants to touch it with a ten foot pole- NOBODY.
    There is nothing worse to hear as a parent with an adolescent I don’t want to go to school not because of learning but because of bullying.
    The other factor is money – parents with means wield a heavy sword above teachers and the school board heads and if a offspring is involved- Not My Child!
    Which actually red flag educators a parent who is a so called good parents will know all kids aunt angels and be willing to ponder okay what could my child have done? Knowing kids to stupid and mean things and part of growing up is learning not to do stupid and mean things because really what mother wants to have to ask the question did I raise a monster?
    And then what abuse have the bullies endured? Children do not just become bullies. Though sometimes there are children you wonder but then I come back to intergenerational trauma or trauma at conception or in the womb.
    My child’s solution was to go to Community College And was awoken to the real world and did just fine.
    My talks with the superendent and police liaison officer were futile. The principal was not an option because she had verbally abused another child.
    The Guidance Department folks were useless in that they saw experienced bullying and did NOTHING.
    When your child is called down to Guidance and the staff is commandeered to stand in a line and watch as a traffic ticket is issued to an unsuspecting teen who is in AP and a busy volunteer then one knows the whole community is involved in the bullying.
    Someday , I hope to move since the community bullying continues to this day.
    Thanks for sharing your experience. Education can be so important and good but it also can be as evil as the devil.

  7. Julie, most places do have organized opposition to charter schools, and then with some big chains there are specific organizations against them.

    This thing you tangled with might be just out and out fraud. Let us know if we can help in any way. Taking scalps in the here and now is a good way to get out of the therapist’s office.

  8. Sorry I missed this article, Julie, I only just now came across it.

    Anyhow, the wholesale disabling of America’s children disturbs me. On the one hand, I understand the desire of financially troubled households to welcome the extra income of a disability check, and their ignorance — how could they know? — of the terrible ramifications of labelling any child disabled…The emotional/mental/intellectual consequences alone are enormous, especially when a child is raised with the belief that she “cannot”— cannot do much of anything — both because of her “disability” (which mind you could be putative “ADHD” or some made up conduct “disorder” that has more to do with the parents behavior than the child’s…) because she is and will supposedly always be disabled, she simple cannot do or function as others do.

    But also, once on disability, the income, steady if impoverishing, is a huge incentive to parents and to the child NOT to do anything to interrupt these payments. It’s a vicious cycle, alas, because who wants to give up “free money”? Even if it is not enough, it is more than nothing…

    But nothing is free and the toll both economic in terms of lost productivity and also emotional, with children accepting this message for the rest of their lives, is stunning and enormous. We should be prepared to see enormous losses for the country, both in wasted brainpower (because most of these supposedly ADHD “disabled” brains, or even “schizophrenic” disabled brains are perfectly fine or would be but for the disabling treatments!) and in the financial toll in communities where so many “disabled” need “care”.

    While I do not share the over enthusiastic view of being allowed onto the “autistic spectrum” I see that as a somewhat better bandwagon, if one needs a bandwagon. At least many of those on the spectrum (so called) consider themselves special and unique in ways that do not prevent contribution. Yes, they might demand special treatment for “differences” that are also seen all through the so-called neurotypical population, but at least they don’t sit back and say, “Pay me, keep me poor, i’m Incapable and disabled…” In my experience, many of those on the so-called spectrum are higher “functioning” than most people! But this is another subject altogether. I frankly think if we had a guaranteed national annual income many of these supposedly disabled would suddenly get well because neither the families nor they themselves would need to claim disability in order to eat.

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  9. Phoebe, it is unconscionable that so many are being pressed to accept a ~mental illness~ label just to get public money.

    We need to go to Universal Basic Income. As it is now, making people accept the ~mental illness~ label, its like making people first admit to a moral defect.

    What it really seems to be about is preventing people from developing political consciousness, so that they cannot politically organize.

    • Yes, I have thought this for a long time. And not a piddling $1000 a month which is what I think Julián Castro proposés but a real income. If we taxed the wealthy and truly leveled the playing field, because NO ONE’s work is really worth multimillions of dollars, it is usually generated from others money not to mention on their backs. I would say 30,000 per year per individual…can you imagine that, along with healthcare and education paid for by the state? I have read research completely negating the predictions of people becoming lazy and doing nothing. Most invested the money in their own enterprises etc…but will it ever happen? When the mental illness system is dismantled as the fraud it is, maybe then!

  10. The fruits of advancing industrial and agricultural technology is that we don’t need much of a labor force anymore.

    As Buckminster Fuller said, we already produce more than enough of everything. We have the ability to take care of every single person beyond even the level that royalty lived at in past centuries. But the reason that we don’t see this is that we demand that everyone prove that they can earn a living.

    And likewise the reason the middle-class family exists is to psychically scar and maim children. Pedagogy, Psychiatry, and Psychotherapy are core components of this effort.

  11. Awesome! Thanks for letting us know about this.

    I do have to say, I think that across the country the situation with charter schools, and with labeling, is really pretty horrible.

    Thank you for doing what you can, and please let us know if you see anything we should do.

    We don’t need to be reading article about psychiatry or psychotherapy. We need to be reading about and getting involved in political matters.