The N.C. Board of Education is poised to pass rules Wednesday that would restrict the way virtual charter schools operate in the state, despite the objection of legislative leaders who say the state board is overstepping its authority.
The state board, which sets rules and oversees K-12 public education in North Carolina, plans on voting at their Wednesday meeting to limit the number of virtual charters, set a lower funding amount for online-based charter schools than brick-and-mortar school and require their applications come directly to the N.C. Board of Education. The state does not currently have any virtual charter schools, but the N.C. Virtual Public School does offer classes online to public school students looking to catch up on schoolwork or take classes not available in their home districts.
But the chairs of the N.C. General Assembly’s Education Oversight Committee — state Sen. Jerry Tillman and state Reps. Bryan Holloway and Linda Johnson — don’t want the state board to set policies regarding virtual charter schools.
The trio of Republican lawmakers sent a letter to Bill Harrison, the chairman of the state Board of Education, in mid-November advising him not to move forward with the proposal, according to copies of letters obtained by N.C. Policy Watch through a public records request.(Scroll down or click here  to read the letter.)
“The State Board of Education is acting outside of its authority with the proposed administrative policy,” Tillman, Holloway and Johnson wrote. “Moreover, deliberations on the role of virtual charter schools in North Carolina are needed at the legislative level before any virtual charter school policies are adopted.”
Harrison responded that the state education board wanted to set a policy before the next round of charter school applications come in this spring for schools hoping to open up in the fall of 2014. (Click here  for Harrison’s letter.)
“The proposed virtual charter policy was not intended to conflict with any laws enacted by the General Assembly or usurp the authority of the General Assembly to act in this area,” Harrison wrote in a Nov. 28 response. State law is “silent with regard to the establishment of virtual charter schools and its plain language is only directed at traditional brick and mortar charter schools,” he added.
None of the lawmakers nor Harrison could be immediately reached Tuesday.
The conflict could set the stage for the legislature taking up the cause of virtual charter schools in January, when the Republican-led state legislature comes to Raleigh for its long session to hammer out a state budget.
Another lawmaker, state Rep. Jason Saine, said he wants the state to look at allowing virtual charter schools and requested that the Digital Learning Environments in Public Schools Committee  add that to a list of recommendations it will put forth next week to the larger N.C. General Assembly.
“Digital charters would be something to look at more,” Saine said Tuesday in an interview. “We need to make sure that we move forward in a reasonable manner that protects our students as well.”
Though not mentioned by name, K12, Inc.,  stands to be most affected by the state board’s decision. The company, the largest for-profit virtual school company in the nation, has taken on criticism in other states for what critics say is a lackluster form of education that’s more focused on squeezing out profits from the publicly-funded schools than educating children.
It made an unsuccessful run at opening up in North Carolina last year, and has already hired five lobbyists this year, including former state Rep. Jeff Barnhart , according to the N.C. Secretary of State’s office.
The company, through a non-profit board it set up and funded, got initial approval from the Cabarrus School Board in early 2012 and its request to open forwarded to the state board. The state board, which grants charter schools the ability to open, ignored K12’s application, and the matter has been tied up in the courts since.
The policy going before the N.C. State Board of Education Wednesday looks to address some major concerns about virtual charter schools, a growing piece of the education market that’s been lucrative for investors but has had some issues meeting quality standards in other states.
The schools are largely operated online, with students taking classes through home computers or in classrooms without the same overhead costs that traditional public schools have. Supporters of the virtual system see the online-based classroom as a way to offer more flexibility and options to families dissatisfied with public schools in their area.
The proposal  that the N.C. Board of Education will vote on tomorrow would, if passed:
- Eliminate local school district funding and limit state funding to $3,504 per pupil (eight times the cost of a $438 year-long course at the state-run N.C. Virtual Public School .)
- Allow only up to three virtual charter schools in the state
- Keep a ratio of one teacher for every 50 students
- Require a physical location in the state for the school
- Set graduation rates within 10 percent of the state’s graduation rate (currently 80 percent)
- Limit student withdrawal rate to no more than 15 percent for two out of three years
The N.C. Board of Education meets at 1 p.m. Wednesday at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, 301 N. Wilmington St, in Raleigh. Live audio streaming of the meeting is available here .
Questions? Comments? Reporter Sarah Ovaska can be reached at (919) 861-1463 or [email protected]