The dwindling time for a vital debate

The dwindling time for a vital debate

- in Fitzsimon File

A largely unreported decision made last Tuesday could have a dramatic impact on public education in North Carolina as soon as this fall, diverting millions of dollars from local school systems to a shady out-of-state corporation and opening the door to the next stage of dismantling traditional public schools.

The ruling by Administrative Law Judge Beecher Gray paves the way for a non-profit run by the company K-12 Inc. to open an online charter school in North Carolina in August that’s expected to enroll as many 1,750 students and collect $18 million of funding from traditional public schools with little accountability over how the money is spent.

And that’s just the beginning. K-12 and similar for-profit virtual charter school companies are expanding in states across the county with aggressive marketing campaigns, emboldened by weaker charter school laws passed by conservative state legislatures.

Sarah Ovaska with NC Policy Watch reports that Judge Gray ruled last week that the State Board of Education acted improperly by not considering an application for a charter that K-12, Inc. submitted in February through its nonprofit NC Learns.

Gray ‘s ruling didn’t just order the board to consider the application, it seemed to actually grant the charter to NC Learns to open this fall, much to the delight of its lawyer, Republican state Senator Fletcher Hartsell from Cabarrus County.

Hartsell was instrumental in convincing his local board of education to partner with K-12 and in return the Cabarrus County school system will receive a small percentage of the funding that the company receives for each student.

The state board is expected to appeal the judge’s ruling in Superior Court and the General Assembly could always change the law to stop the profit-making off of North Carolina students, but don’t count on that.

Hartsell is a powerful senator and K-12 employs a battalion of well-connected lobbyists with ties to key Democrats and Republicans. The Republican legislature last year not only completely lifted the cap on the number of charter schools, lawmakers included a provision in a budget bill to allow virtual for-profit schools to operate outside the state virtual public school structure.

Gray’s ruling and the push by out of state for-profit companies to run online charter schools is an extraordinarily important story for two reasons, the spotty record of virtual education overall and the questionable practices of K-12, Inc.

An audit of K12’s virtual charter in Colorado found the state paid $800,000 to the company for students who never enrolled or lived out of state. The company faces a lawsuit charging that company officials misled investors and the public about the quality of education it was offering.

If that’s not enough, a news story about the company’s efforts to set up a virtual school for Tennessee reported that K12 outsourced grading of papers to India until publicity about it forced the company to end the practice.

This is the company that is preparing to collect millions of public dollars in North Carolina with little or no accountability for how the money is used.

Other for-profit companies are also watching the case and the law carefully, ready with their own schemes to make money off of public schools.

North Carolina desperately needs a full and open debate about the wisdom of turning public education into an online profit center and somebody needs to take a long hard look at K-12 too.

That debate and investigation better happen quickly. The dismantling of public schools is about to begin. The cash registers are K-12 are warming up.