Ready or not, virtual charter schools on verge of powering up in North Carolina

By: - February 5, 2015 8:53 am


Get ready to add “attend third-grade” to the growing list of things you can do over the Internet in North Carolina, after ordering pizzas and watching cat videos.

The State Board of Education, which oversees public education in the state, is expected to approve two charter schools today that will teach children from their home computers in schools run by Wall Street-traded companies.

(Update: The two virtual charter schools were approved Thursday.)

Daily monitoring would be in the hands of “learning coaches,” a role that’s been filled by parents, guardians and athletic coaches in the more than 30 other states that offer publicly-funded virtual schooling options.

Today’s anticipated vote of approval (click here to listen to an audio stream of today’s meeting) will be a significant change of the state board, which fought an attempt in the courts from the N.C. Virtual Academy to open up a virtual school three years ago.

If approved, the N.C. Virtual Academy (to be run by K12, Inc., NYSE:LRN) and N.C. Connections Academy (to be run by Connections Academy, owned by education giant Pearson, NYSE:PSO) will be able to enroll up to 1,500 students each from across the state, and send millions in public education dollars to schools run by private education companies.

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 147 tuition-free charter schools that operated in counties across the state.

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

Ensuring that students are learning

North Carolina’s education board is wrestling with what, if any, additional restrictions should be placed on the virtual schools that will be run by education management companies that have seen mixed results in other states.

A committee of state board members previously recommended the schools provide and pay for “learning coaches” if parents weren’t available to monitor students, and provide computers and Internet access to students living in low-income families. Both schools say they won’t have the resources to pay for learning coaches.

At-risk students with parents who work wouldn’t be able to attend the virtual schools otherwise, Evelyn Bulluck said during Wednesday’s discussion at the state board. Bulluck is a Nash County-Rocky Mount school board member who serves in an advisory role to the state board.

“That tells me that this school is not accessible for many children which means then that we’re excluding a segment of our student population,” Bulluck said. “North Carolina would not have established a law that excludes a whole segment of children.”

But other members stressed Republican lawmakers hadn’t envisioned those types of restrictions when they created a four-year pilot program for two virtual charter schools in last year’s budget bill.

“The responsibility should fall on the parents,” said Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican supportive of expanding education choice options in the public school system. “It’s very problematic for us to get in the business in telling them they must provide a learning coach.”

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. In other states, the online-based schools have proven popular with families that prefer home-schooling, or students who contend with serious health problems, behavior problems, taxing extracurricular schedules or bullying.

Other states have experienced problems or expressed concerns about K12, Inc., the for-profit vendor behind the N.C. Virtual Academy. One Colorado school run by K12, Inc. had a graduation rate as low as 10 percent in 2010, Tennessee may shut down a K12, Inc.-run school following poor academic results and the NCAA has indicated it won’t accept classes for prospective student athletes from a number of K12, Inc.-run schools.

A 2012 report from the National Education Policy Center (which has been critical of the charter schools) found that students who attended virtual schools performed worse academically then their peers in other public schools.

The virtual schools will be funded at levels close to what brick-and-mortar charter schools receive, but with fewer local funds available to the online schools. 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.

Investors watching North Carolina decision

North Carolina’s warming to virtual schools will be welcome news to investors, who have seen online charter schools in other states scale back their involvement with K12, Inc. as school leaders take over the management functions from the company.

Today’s decision by the state board was mentioned in a Jan. 29 earnings call K12, Inc. management had with investors.

“In North Carolina, we continue to support our independent not-for-profit partner, the NC Learns Board, as they were the policymakers in the State Board of Education on their application to open a statewide online public charter school for the upcoming year,” K12, Inc. CEO Nate Davis told investors, according to a transcript of the call. “If approved the school could enroll up to 1500 students in the upcoming school year and increase this to about 3000 students by the fourth year of operation.”

There’s not much wiggle for the state board in considering the applications, after the Republican-led legislature slipped a provision into last year’s budget bill mandated the creation of four-year pilot with two schools.

At least two Republican lawmakers contacted education board members this week to remind them of that.

“The language is unambiguous that the legislature intended for there to be exactly two virtual charter schools, no more, no less,” wrote state Rep. Jason Saine, a lawmaker from Lincolnton. “Moreover, it is equally unambiguous that the legislature intended for the virtual charter schools to cover all grades, kindergarten through twelfth grade.”

N.C. House Speaker Pro-Tem. Paul “Skip” Stam, a powerful Apex Republican and key supporter of school choice issues, sent a similar letter this week.

The law passed “requires that the school ensure that each student is assigned a learning coach,” Stam wrote. “It does not require the school to provide a learning coach.”

Forest, the state’s lieutenant governor, also said educational choice options are designed to offer solutions, and that means that the virtual schools may not work for everyone but can make differences in the lives of some students.

“Not every (educational) choice is going to be a good choice for every single child,” Forest said. “That’s why you do these things.”

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

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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.