North Carolina public education backers are fired up this week over a new round of advocacy at the N.C. General Assembly that seems geared toward rebranding for-profit virtual charters and private school recipients of taxpayer-backed vouchers as public schools.
They brought with them pro-school choice literature that—while paid for by a little-known, at least in North Carolina, nonprofit called Public School Options—almost exclusively plugs the controversial N.C. Virtual Academy, an online school run by for-profit operator K12 Inc. that’s been troubled by high dropout rates and flagging academic numbers in its first two years of operation.
The advocacy also purports to offer a closer look at “public school options” available to students nationwide, including in its count 310,000 students in full-time virtual schools and 190,000 receiving “tuition assistance from tax-credit funded scholarship programs.”
That’s likely a reference that would include North Carolina’s own controversial Opportunity Scholarship Program, which offers public cash to low-income students seeking to enroll in the state’s primarily religious private schools, some of which reportedly maintain discriminatory admissions policies toward LGBTQ students and their families.
Public school supporters say the new push at the legislature is a misleading new tactic that seems intended to reclassify for-profit virtual charters and private schools as public institutions.
“These are not public schools,” says Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of N.C., a nonpartisan K-12 policy and research group in Raleigh. “These are schools that don’t have to meet the same criteria for transparency and accountability. Many of these private schools openly acknowledge that they discriminate on the basis of religion or sexual orientation. They don’t accept every student that comes in the door like public schools do.”
State Rep. Graig Meyer, an Orange County Democrat and former school administrator who’s among the most outspoken K-12 advocates in the legislature, also took issue with the group’s legislative efforts.
“I don’t know what out of state funder is paying for these false advertisements, but I can be pretty sure that this group is not sponsored by actual North Carolina parents,” Meyer told Policy Watch Tuesday. “They are clearly trying to make the public believe that voucher funded schools are public schools when they are not.”
Meyer blasted the group’s tactics at the legislature, calling them an “unprecedented event to relabel private schools as public schools.”
“If we’re going to have a debate about school choice options, let’s at least be honest about what the options are,” said Meyer.
Public School Options, meanwhile, remains something of an enigma in North Carolina. While the group describes itself as “an alliance of parents that supports and defends parents’ rights to access the best public school options for their children,” the local phone number on its flier rings the office of GOP consultant Dee Stewart of Raleigh-based The Stewart Group.
Stewart, who did not respond to Policy Watch interview requests, has worked for influential Republicans such as state Senate President Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, but is not a registered lobbyist in North Carolina.
All of this comes at a time of unprecedented lobbying and support among North Carolina policymakers on behalf of private schools and virtual charter operators.
In last year’s budget, North Carolina lawmakers voted to allow private school vouchers to balloon from $44 million this year to $144 million by 2027-2028.
Supporters say private schools offer an option for parents whose children have been failed by traditional public schools, but opponents note schools receiving public vouchers maintain policies that are openly discriminatory toward LGBTQ students and their families.
They also point to a recent Stanford University report that there’s no evidence of the academic boons long touted by private school voucher supporters.
Meanwhile, since officials approved two virtual charter pilots in 2015, state legislators have allocated roughly $80 million to the two schools, in addition to handing down relaxed attendance-taking requirements that critics credit for the schools’ plunging count of dropouts this academic year.
That, despite widespread criticism of at least one of the two companies, K12 Inc., which, last year, reportedly settled a $168 million lawsuit with the state of California over allegations that it misled state leaders over academics and attendance in order to guzzle more public cash.
K-12 has at least five registered lobbyists arguing for them at the legislature today, and although Public School Options appears to have no officially disclosed relationship with a virtual charter, the group is distributing fliers that purport to tell the story of struggling students who saw major turnarounds after enrolling at K12’s N.C. Virtual Academy.
“It just feels like an effort to, in some ways, mislead the public to believe these are public schools when they’re not,” Poston says.
“I think another part of the strategy is to distract from the growing body of evidence that things like virtual charter schools do a terrible job in educating students. In state after state, in study after study, the results are abysmal. I think that’s another reason why we’re seeing these increased efforts.”
Poston is referring to a 2015 Stanford University study that found virtual charter students may trail their peers in traditional public schools by as much as an entire academic year.
“It’s almost as if they didn’t attend school at all,” adds Poston.
Joel Medley, Virtual Academy’s head of school, was unavailable for comment Tuesday because of testing, although virtual charter backers say that the format, while it may not be for every student, is a boon for bullied students and others who’ve struggled in traditional school formats.
It’s unclear whether K12 Inc. has any financial ties to Public School Options. K12 reps were not immediately available for comment Tuesday, and a spokesperson for Public School Options, Susan Hepworth, did not respond to email inquiries about the specifics of the group’s funding stream.
Federal tax documents as recent as 2014 indicate the Washington, D.C.-based group once operated with a relatively limited annual income of around $2 million, although no specific donors were listed.
Policy Watch has requested more recent tax filings to provide additional clarity about the group, which, on its website, lists a pair of individuals as parent representatives in North Carolina, but does not specify whether the out-of-state group maintains an office in the state.
Additionally, the site appears to have gone without an update for at least two years, as it includes a petition for the N.C. State Board of Education to approve two pilot, virtual charter programs. The state board approved both programs in early 2015.
Over email, Hepworth defended the group’s efforts to advocate for school choice.
“We believe parents should be trusted to make educational decisions for their own children and need a full menu of school choice options to choose from,” Hepworth wrote. “We also believe parents deserve a seat at the table when it comes to decisions about education. Unfortunately, parents are among the least represented stakeholders in education policy.”
For his part, Poston says he understands the movement to increase parental control in public education, but he called for fairness—and honesty—in how policymakers and advocates build regulations for emerging school choice options.
“From the perspective as a public school supporter, it’s particularly galling because of what’s happening to our teachers and our public schools in terms of testing, and A-F school grades and scrutiny,” said Poston. “If it’s ok for public schools, then why not allow the same kind of transparency and accountability for these private, for-profit schools?”