Policy Watch Investigates

State studies how virtual charters should work

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High numbers of withdrawals, unchecked truancy and low graduation rates can thwart success at virtual high schools, two online school providers told a state study group developing recommendations for how the controversial schooling choice could operate in North Carolina.

High school is a nightmare,” said Mary Gifford, the senior vice-president of education policy for K12, Inc. in a presentation Tuesday at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.“Forty percent of the students in high school will be very successful.”

K12, Inc., the largest online school provider in the country, has faced increased criticism in recent years over performance of its schools in many states, including a graduation rate of 22 percent at a Colorado high school and test scores that put it among the worst performing public schools in Tennessee. Both K12, Inc. (NYSE:LRN) and Connections Academy, which is owned by education company Pearson (NYSE:PSO) and runs virtual charter schools in 26 states, are looking to operate online charter schools in North Carolina, with applications pending for the 2015-16 school year.

The Virtual Charter School Study Group is evaluating how virtual charter schools fare in other states as part of a set recommendations it will present to the State Board of Education in March, with the suggestions then going to the state legislature.

The committee consisting of public education officials, charter school educators and school choice and home schooling advocates, listened Tuesday to presentations from K12, Inc. and Connections Academy, the two largest providers of online based schools in the country. (Click here to view K12’s presentation and here for one from Connections Academy.)

The N.C. Supreme Court is also considering whether to consider an appeal related to a 2012 proposal to open a K12, Inc.-run school.

Any rules adopted and codified by the state legislature would replace existing state board policy that capped compensation for the online-based schools at approximately $3,500 a student, limited the online schooling option to high school grades and held schools to high standards for graduation and withdrawal rates.

I don’t want us to be creating charters that aren’t at least the same quality of what we’re offering,” said Tim Markey, a superintendent of the New Hanover schools on the study group.

Gifford, the K12, Inc. executive, attributed her company’s low results in high school to enrollment spikes the company has seen with at-risk and impoverished students who lag behind their peers. Those students often don’t have the discipline or structure needed to succeed in a school where classrooms, teachers and peers are on computer screens. Nor can they fit four years worth of high school into the year or two they spend with K12.

They don’t get caught up,” Gifford said about high school students at risk of dropping out. “They enroll incredibly behind and they remain behind.”

The company better serves younger students that have worked with the online-based schooling system for several years, she said.

Nearly 50 percent of the students enrolled in both Pearson and K12, Inc.-schools meet the fiscal threshold for free and reduced lunches, though company represent said they suspect the number might be higher. Statistics presented by K12 indicate that half of the company’s students are also Title 1-eligible, a designation that triggers extra federal funding for low-income, disadvantaged youth.

North Carolina does not currently have any virtual public charter schools, but the state does operated the N.C. Virtual Public School which offers individual online classes to help high school students who have fallen behind or who want classes not offered in their home school district.

The virtual charter study group includes Darrell Allison of the pro-voucher group Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina; Darcie Grimes, N.C. Teacher of the Year; Darin Hartness, the Davie County Schools superintendent; Glenn Kleimann, director of the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation; Dave Mahaley, a charter school principal; New Hanover County Schools Superintendent Tim Markley; F. Spencer Mason, lobbyist for North Carolinians for Home Education; Lisa Springle, a charter school board member and Barbara Stoops, a virtual charter school principal in South Carolina.

Several lobbyists hired by K12, Inc. for the upcoming legislative hearing attended Tuesday’s meeting, including Harry Kaplan, a McGuireWoods lobbyist who also represents Allison’s group, Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.

Pearson, the parent company for Connections Academy, also maintains a strong lobbying presence in North Carolina and has hired lobbyists from the Raleigh-based Capstrat lobbying and marketing firm, according to records at the N.C. Secretary of State’s office.

Jay Ragley, a government relations director with Connections Academy, warned the committee Tuesday that companies running online schools that withdrawal rates in the first few years of a virtual public charter schools existence could be 30 percent or higher, as families see if the online-teaching method works for them.

About 20 percent of Connections Academy students typically come from being home-schooled and some families leave after finding the curriculum too rigorous or restrictive.

In some places, public school districts have also used the virtual high school as a place to dump troubled students before they drop out, leading to low graduation rates, he said.

He also said limiting a virtual school to high-school means families with younger children would be unable to access the online-only option.

You are restricting parental choice,” he said.

Questions? Comments? You can reach reporter Sarah Ovaska at (919) 861-1463 or sarah@ncpolicywatch.com.