Virtual charter schools inch closer to approval

Virtual charter schools inch closer to approval

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The State Board of Education had tough questions Wednesday for two for-profit virtual education companies in line to receive millions in public money to teach children through their home computers.

Both applicants for a legislatively-mandated pilot program, N.C. Connections Academy and N.C. Virtual Academy, will be governed by a non-profit board of directors, but both groups plan on contracting with virtual education companies to actually run the schools.

State board members brought up concerns about poor performances the cyber companies, Pearson-owned Connections Academy (NYSE: PSO) and K12, Inc. (NYSE:LRN), have had in other states, as well as questions about how the schools will work for families that can’t afford computers or Internet connections.

“I don’t want to feel that the virtual school is a school of the privileged,” said John Tate, a State Board of Education member from Charlotte.

State Board members will return in February and make their final decisions on the applications from N.C. Virtual Academy and N.C. Connections Academy.

If approved by the state, the N.C. Virtual Academy (which will be run by K12, Inc.) and N.C. Connections Academy (to be run by Connections Academy) each hope to enroll 1,500 students in the first year, for a total of 3,000 students.  The N.C. Virtual Academy hopes to serve students from kindergarten through 10th grade, while the NC Connections Academy aims to help children in the elementary and middle-school grades.

The virtual schools will be funded at levels close to what brick-and-mortar charter schools receive, but with lower local funds available to the online school. The schools could receive up to $66 million a year by 2017, if enrollment reaches a combined 6,000 students by then, according to the Associated Press.

Despite concerns expressed at Wednesday’s meeting, the applications are likely to be approved, with a requirement set by the Republican-led legislature to open up two online charter schools as part of a four-year pilot program.

Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest told board members that fear of a new education platform shouldn’t keep them from offering an alternative form of education that some students and families will favor.

“We do have legislation in front of us that says to offer a pilot program for two schools,” Forest said, implying that the state board would have to move forward with approving the two schools to comply with the law.

He also said most children live in homes where parents are passionate about their children’s education and could easily serve as the learning coaches needed to supervise and monitor children’s daily lessons.

“Nobody cares about their kids more than their parents,” Forest said.

North Carolina has experienced a rapid increase in charter schools since state lawmakers lifted a 100-school cap in 2011 on the publicly funded schools run by private non-profit boards of directors. There are now 148 tuition-free charter schools that operated in counties across the state.

North Carolina, unlike many states, doesn’t have any full-time virtual charter schools but the state does run the North Carolina Virtual Public School, which offers individual classes to schoolchildren around the state.

The model of education is controversial and K12, Inc., in particular, has been criticized for aggressive pushes in other states to lobby state leaders and marketing efforts that bring in large numbers of students not well-suited to online learning.

A 2011 study of Pennsylvania cyber schools found that students in online charter schools performed worse in most measures than their counterparts who spent their days in traditional classrooms.

The NCAA doesn’t currently accept classes from two dozen K12, Inc.-run schools for student-athletes looking to play at the collegiate level, and Tennessee education officials plan on shutting down a K12, Inc.-run virtual school there because of poor academic results.

In North Carolina, the State Board of Education also blocked a 2012 bid to open a K12, Inc.-run school, a contentious move that led to litigation.

At Wednesday’s meeting, the board chair of the N.C. Virtual Academy was asked about why he and the other members of the non-profit board felt comfortable hiring K12, Inc. given the well-publicized problems in other states.

Chris Withrow, the board chair for the proposed North Carolina school, said the board made sure it could terminate its relationship with K12, Inc. in 90 days if the virtual school had subpar results. Board members also had conversations with K12, Inc. about problems in other state and don’t believe the issues will be repeated in North Carolina.

Withrow said large portions of the student population at the Tennessee school were “set up for failure” by coming into the virtual school already performing below grade levels.

“They were poor performers,” he said.

In North Carolina, families will talk with educators soon after applying to learn more about the demands of an online-only education.

Travis Mitchell, another board member for the K12-run school, said the field of virtual education is complex, but can offer needed opportunities for students that are struggling in traditional classrooms.

“Whose got the secret sauce the virtual space?,” Mitchell said. “We’re going to have to create those ingredients.”

Questions? Comments? Reporter Sarah Ovaska can be reached at (919) 861-1463 or sarah@ncpolicywatch.com.