K12 makes push for N.C. school market

By: - May 9, 2013 1:34 pm


An online charter school company revived its bid to open a North Carolina school through a proposed legislative add-on this week that would put the school on a path to opening.

K12, Inc., a for-profit company that gets most of its revenue from running public charter schools across the nation, submitted an application last February through a non-profit group N.C. Learns organized in order to host the school. The N.C. State Board of Education didn’t act on the application, a contentious move that led to litigation now pending in the state’s appeals court.

State Rep. Jon Hardister, a Greensboro Republican, said a proposed committee substitute he’s working on for his bill about charter school funding, House Bill 273, would order the N.C. State Board of Education to take up the virtual charter school application and provide a solution to that conflict.

The board of education didn’t do what it was supposed to do,” Hardister said. “This application deserves a fair hearing.”

He expects the proposed committee substitute, known as a PCS in legislative lingo, to be drafted today or tomorrow, and heard Tuesday morning in a House Education Committee hearing in Raleigh.

Hardister, with the help of K12, Inc. lobbyists, initially drafted language that would have automatically opened the K12, Inc.-run school this fall. The new version he’s working on will allow the state board a chance to review the proposal instead of automatically opening the school, he said.

The initial version of the PCS was passed out in a House Education committee Tuesday, but Hardister displaced it and took it off the agenda for discussion after hearing concerns from public education and a charter school group about the automatic approval.

Eddie Goodall, the lobbyists and director of the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association, said any virtual school should have to go before the State Board of Education, and have its proposal scrutinized.

We are not opposed to K12 having a charter school, or any virtual charter school,” Goodall said. “What we do oppose is that they’re not going through the same process as any other charter school.”

The N.C. School Boards Association, which is involved in litigation against the school, and the N.C. Association of School Administrators are opposed to the virtual school. The school board association also intervened in the lawsuit to K12, because of concerns about the quality education offered by the company and the funds it could drain from existing public schools. (Note: The N.C. Justice Center, a non-profit advocating for low-income North Carolinians, joined the lawsuit in opposition to N.C. Learns and K12 in an amicus capacity. N.C. Policy Watch is project under the N.C. Justice Center.)

N.C. Policy Watch obtained a copy of Hardister’s original PCS (available here) which makes reference to how the K12-backed school received preliminary approval from Cabarrus County School Board. The State Board of Education, which oversees kindergarten through 12th grade public education in the state, did not act on the application because it was submitted after the time period allotted for charter school applications.

Any charter school, including a virtual charter school, granted preliminary authorization by a local board of education between June 30, 2011 and February 2, 2012, which the State Board of Education failed by specific vote to grant or deny final approval by the statutory deadline of March 15, 2012, would be deemed approved and authorized for operation in the 2013-2014 school year,” read the initial version of Hardister’s PCS.

Hardister also says he plans on dropping the language in the PCS that would allow cities and counties to raise capital funds for charter schools, a point of major contention for public education advocacy groups.

K12, Inc., which manages public charter schools in 32 states and Washington, D.C., has faced criticism over the last year for the quality of its schools. Critics argue that the company’s focus on profits has resulted in education offerings that fail to deliver the same quality as the traditional public schools. The company has fiercely defended its product, and maintained that it offers an alternative to families in areas with poor quality schools, or for children who prefer instruction at home because of illness, bullying or accelerated learners held back in their traditional classes.

Chart of states with K-12 schools
Source: K12, Inc. 2012 annual report

The company, (NYSE:LRN) reported $708 million in revenue in 2012, with 84 percent earned from running public schools, according to the company’s 2012 annual report.

Tennessee lawmakers are debating limiting enrollment after finding its K12-run school was one of the lowest performing in the state in its first year of operation, with 16 percent of school’s 3,200 students meeting state standards in math. A Virginia school district on the North Carolina border recently decided to stop hosting one of the company’s statewide schools there, and a draft report of a Florida education department investigation found the school had three teachers teaching classes they weren’t certified to teach.

North Carolina appears a ripe market for the company, after the state legislature lifted the 100-school cap on charter schools in 2011 in the state and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory spoke favorably about virtual charter schools while campaigning.

K12 has garnered a reputation for aggressively pursuing business, by employing teams of lobbyist and donating significantly to the campaigns of political allies.

In North Carolina, K12, Inc. has kept a significant lobbying presence at the N.C. General Assembly, hiring four lobbyists to promote their interests at the state legislature, according to the N.C. Secretary of State’s office.

Jeff Barnhart, a lobbyist for K12 at the Raleigh-based McGuire Woods lobbying firm, declined to comment on the proposed committee substitution.

I really have no comment,” he said.

Barnhart stepped down from his legislative seat representing Cabarrus County in 2011 and has since gone before the Cabarrus County School Board to lobby for K12 in 2011 and 2012, when the school board decided to back the company’s bid for a statewide charter school in exchange for the school district getting a cut of the virtual school’s funding.

State Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, a Concord Republican, has been representing N.C. Learns, the non-profit group set up by K12 to apply for the school, in legal proceedings. The charter school has argued that the state board should have acted on its application, through a rarely-used avenue for approval in the state statutes. The N.C. State Board of Education has indicated it refused to consider the application because it hadn’t developed a policy around virtual charter schools and the application wasn’t submitted in the timeline set by the state board. Then-chairman Bill Harrison also said in October 2012 board meeting that they wouldn’t be taking up virtual charter school applications.

That has since happened, with the state board adopting a separate application for virtual charter schools that requires the school to maintain graduation rates within 10 percent of the state average, reduces the per-pupil funding to approximately $3,500 and requires disclosure of how an online school company performed in other states.

Lawmakers on top education committees took issue with the state board’s policy, indicating they were overstepping their authority. .

But the State Board of Education has changed significantly since that proposal was drafted, with McCrory’s appointment of six new members to the 13-member board since he took office. Governors usually only have three appointments of the powerful board in their first term, but McCrory was able to fill three additional positions after Republican legislative leaders refused to take up Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue’s nominations when she was in office.

N.C. Policy Watch has written extensively about K12, Inc.’s involvement in North Carolina. You can read stories about the company’s initial approach to Cabarrus County school officials here, or about the lawsuit to approve the charter school here.

Questions? Comments? Reporter Sarah Ovaska can be reached at (919) 861-1463 or [email protected]

k12PCSversion1 by ncpolicywatch

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Sarah Ovaska-Few

Sarah Ovaska-Few, former Investigative Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch for five years, conducted investigations and watchdog reports into issues of statewide importance. Ovaska-Few was also staff writer and reporter for six years with the News & Observer in Raleigh, where she reported on governmental, legal, political and criminal justice issues.