This article was first published in Chalkboard Review.
Threatening Prenda’s standing with investors and families alike
As the COVID-19 pandemic shut schools down across the country, one micro-school network rose to serve thousands of students in need of an education. Expanding from 80 students to more than 4,000 in just two years, Prenda has become one of the nation’s largest and most prominent micro-school providers. But with that growth came controversy, and an entirely manufactured crisis threatened Prenda’s standing with investors and families alike.
On April 26, 2021, Robert O’Dell, a journalist with the Arizona Republic, wrote a highly critical article detailing an apparent scandal involving Prenda, a rapidly expanding micro-school network, and its partner, EdKey. O’Dell wrote that “under the arrangement, EdKey enrolls students into its Sequoia online school and collects charter school funding from the state. The students, however, are taught Prenda’s curriculum by “guides” that Prenda hires.”
O’Dell’s article, citing Hall, describes the relationship between Prenda and Edkey as “fraud,” because “EdKey is not providing services. Essentially, EdKey is getting a hefty finder’s fee and then passing the students to Prenda without teaching them or providing them a curriculum.”
He used phrases like “little regulation” to describe Prenda’s operations, and mocked Prenda’s desire to become “the Uber of education.”
In response, O’Dell said, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office (AG) launched an investigation into both companies, having been prompted to do so by local charter school watchdog Jim Hall.
But this particular story has multiple holes. First, it is entirely normal for a school to contract direct instruction out to another entity. After all, Arizona’s traditional public schools contracted with the Florida Virtual School during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nowhere did O’Dell’s article note that the contract occurred.
Second, Hall, a former principal, appears to have an ax to grind. Hall runs Arizonans for Charter School Accountability, a charter school watchdog group that remains formally unregistered with Arizona authorities. The name is owned by someone else.
“The Arizonans for Charter School Accountability will continue to examine the financial dealings of this charter organization and others. We will file complaint after complaint. We will go to the media to expose corrupt organizations. We will fight to change the law so that charter schools have financial accountability to the taxpayers of Arizona,” the group’s website says.
The problem is that Hall is the one wasting taxpayer money. Between July 13, 2018, and December 15, 2020, Hall filed 243 separate complaints against charter schools in Arizona. None of these complaints resulted in any action on the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools’ (AZBCS) part, nor by any other agency to whom Hall filed complaints. Once again, O’Dell’s article never specified that Hall’s complaints had never gone anywhere.
When Hall’s complaint against Edkey and Prenda reached the AG, the office did their due diligence. But, as with every other Jim Hall complaint, the inquiry was dropped. The nature of the form, an open/close formality, dated to June 10, 2021, indicated that there was never an investigation to begin with. As “the complaint was unfounded,” there was never a case. While the full document, which has been obtained by Chalkboard Review staff, was not initially sent out, EdKey was informed on June 11 that the complaint had been closed.
“We absolutely respect Mr. Hall’s right to complain to his government, and we likewise have a lot of respect for the hard-working investigators of Arizona law enforcement who follow up on such things,” Prenda said in a statement. “In this case, the complaint was without merit and Prenda is hard at work to realize our mission of empowering learners.” They added that they had never been informed that they were under investigation.
But O’Dell stood by his story, even after repeated email and social media exchanges with Mark Plitzuweit, the CEO of EdKey. O’Dell refused to write an update and repeatedly demanded a close-out form for an investigation that never happened.
“You truly do not understand how the process works…” O’Dell told Plitzuweit in a December 17, 2021 email. “After the complaint was filed, I talked to the AG’s office and confirmed the investigator who was assigned to the investigation and confirmed that it was an investigator in the criminal division, as is laid out in the story. The story stands for itself. You are free to talk to my editors about the story, please let me know if you would like their contact information,” O’Dell added.
O’Dell also argued that the AG inquiry had no connection to a separate AZBCS investigation, which had been closed in April 2021 due to a lack of evidence of wrongdoing. That case had also been filed by Hall, and had also targeted EdKey. AZBCS is under the AG’s jurisdiction.
AG documents are notoriously hard to obtain, even if the results of an inquiry have already been determined. However, Plitzuweit was able to forward the June 10 AG form to O’Dell on February 8, 2022 — shortly after Jim Hall filed yet another claim against EdKey. O’Dell responded on March 1 that he was “looking into writing a story about it,” but reiterated a demand for unredacted documents.
This isn’t O’Dell’s first rodeo with the school choice movement. He attacked Prenda in 2020 and was attacking charter schools in general as far back as 2018. In 2019, he made reference to a “huge win for important work exposing issues with Arizona charter schools.”
No update, follow-up, addendum, or correction to O’Dell’s initial article was ever published.
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