They say the devil is in the details. The earnings announcement by K12 provided some interesting details, many of which were devils.
In response to the announcement I sent out a Tweet that said the same as my blog title for today: The K12 Inc. ship is sinking. It appears it stirred something within those who actually saw the Tweet because I had a flood of emails arrive yesterday -- on both sides of the argument.
In more than 140 characters, here are the main reasons why it is sinking.
1. The elephant in the room.
K12 management can talk all they want to about double-digit growth in international and private pay schools, and institutional and software sales (even throw in non-managed programs for good measure), but the elephant is managed schools and that is on the decline.
Enrollments in managed schools were down 2.2% in the three months ending June 30 when compared to last year, and down 3.9% yoy. Out of the $948 million in revenue, managed schools accounted for almost $814 million of that total revenue.
Last year K12 was able to increase revenue even with declining enrollment which was a job well done. However, that is not a long-term strategy, nor is it sustainable.
As we look to this academic year, they are already substantially behind in enrollments; Tennessee Virtual Academy will probably have to close doors next year which means a further loss in enrollments; and the states on the horizon (such as Alabama) do not have the population or momentum to provide any measurable increase in enrollments.
So, they are touting the revenue from sources other than managed schools. In fact, CEO Nate Davis referred to FuelEd as "the revenue driver moving forward." But, when you add them up, they only total approximately $130 million in revenue. And, at their current rate of growth, it will take years for these entities to unseat the managed-school elephant that dominates their revenue stream -- which is on the decline.
Keep in mind, all of these numbers include enrollments from newly launched schools in North Carolina and Maine.
2. The legitimacy of the non-managed school growth is in question.
Agora Cyber Charter School severed their management ties with K12 last year. This means enrollments in Agora (over 10,000) shifted from managed schools to non managed schools. See Note 2 under the Enrollment Data.
Non managed schools showed a 38.5% increase yoy in enrollments and a 36.4% increase yoy in revenue. Remove the average of 10,000 in enrollments from Agora from the equation, and non managed schools actually show a decline in enrollments yoy (along with revenue decline).
Why do I point this out? Agora's first step was to sever management ties with K12, just as COVA (Colorado) did a few years ago. What some are missing though is Agora's intent to sever curricula ties with K12 within the next two years -- once this final contract runs out. This means that the near-term horizon has K12 under the gun to replace 10,000+ enrollments in non managed schools just to remain where they are currently.
Commonly referred to as a false positive. Growth looks great on paper but in reality it was a mere shift in classification that accounted for much of the growth. Couple that with the impending loss of these enrollments, and the current positive has a glaring negative potential on the horizon.
3. Ongoing academic struggles of K12 virtual schools.
I mentioned earlier that Tennessee Virtual Academy (TNVA) will probably be shut down after this year -- it was only kept open by legal maneuvering this year so it is hanging on by a thread. It could stay open if it demonstrates a remarkable turnaround in academic success.
However, that is highly unlikely. This past year intense efforts were undertaken to improve the state test scores by TNVA students on the TCAP tests. The results were dismal. So, to expect a turnaround this year would be foolish.
My prediction is the recently opened schools in North Carolina and Maine will be under the gun this time next year because of poor academic results. Why? Because the K12 marketing machine has it wrong.
4. Marketing, messaging, and purpose is still off base.
In the earnings transcript, Nate Davis refers to the new K12 marketing strategy of using "data analytics to find those students most likely to succeed." He also stated the new messaging "will result in a student body better aligned to our core curricular strengths and therefore substantially more likely to gain academically over time and stay with the program longer."
Sounds pleasant and nice. But, I began this blog with the idea that the devil is in the details. So, let's see what details emerge when we uncover the "core curricular strengths" of this. The answer (and the problem) is found when Nate answers an investor's question related to the new type of student K12 is searching for through it's marketing efforts.
Nate's reply: " . . .centering around a campaign we call Uniquely Brilliant, communicating with parents that this program is about the individuality of your student, it's not my sitting in the classroom of verified students and everybody at the same age. This really is about your child's unique speed." (italics mine)
WRONG. The K12 virtual schools, especially at the high school level, are not set up around the child's unique speed. Remember, we used K12 high school for one of our children, so I have firsthand knowledge here.
I am not going to dive into what the messaging should be. K12 can call me if they are serious about recruiting the right students. Suffice it to say though, this ongoing off-based messaging will continue the trend of high attrition rates, and it still remains about the number of seats filled.
If K12 wants to attract the right type of students, then they need to become the right type of virtual school. There remains a huge disconnect between what is being messaged and what is reality once families enroll.
So, I end this as I began it. The K12 Inc. ship is sinking. It's not going under this year but it is taking on water.
At some point in the near future the K12 narrative they would like you to believe will be shown for what it is.
Then, perhaps we can get on with developing virtual schools that matter, ones that serve their customers the way they deserve.