Raleigh, N.C. — Despite some reservations, plans for two online charter schools received the blessing of a state advisory board on Wednesday.
A provision in the state budget passed this summer directs the State Board of Education to approve two virtual charter schools in time for the 2015-16 school year.
Only two schools, both operated by for-profit companies, applied for the mandated slots: North Carolina Virtual Academy, which is affiliated with K12 Inc., and North Carolina Connections Academy, which is with Connections Education.
K12 runs online schools in 30 states and has had problems with student academic performance in several of them. North Carolina officials have twice rejected charter school applications from the company.
"You have a lot of ideas, and they're good ideas. I think where I struggle is how much they can actually be implemented," Charter School Advisory Board Chairwoman Helen Nance told company representatives Wednesday, noting she was especially worried about how N.C. Virtual Academy would serve special-needs students.
"I hate to see us just suddenly throw all this out into the state without really thinking about the students," Nance said.
Mark Jewell, vice president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, warned the board about the student performance at other K12 schools.
"You don't have to look very far than to Tennessee, than to California, Pennsylvania, than to Ohio, than to New Mexico to see the track record is very poor," Jewell said.
The panel voted to recommend N.C. Virtual Academy anyway.
"It only concerns me if the money is not used fairly and well in the classroom, whether it’s virtual or a regular classroom," Nance said. "There are for-profits that really do want to educate children, and as long as their thoughts are really with those students and not in the profit for the company, then I’m OK with that."
N.C. Connections Academy also received a recommendation, as well as a warmer reception from the board.
Bryan Setser, state president for Connections Academy, said he just wants a chance to show virtual charters can work.
"I'm excited for the 5,000 families who keep writing me saying, 'When can we have this option?'" Setser said. "Get ready. We're about to serve you."
The recommendations now got to the State Board of Education, which will hear presentations from the schools in January and is expected to vote on the charters in February.
Jewell said he hopes the state board will closely examine having elementary school children taking online classes instead of interacting with teachers and students in a regular classroom.
"Anybody who knows anything about teaching children has to think that North Carolina children are going to suffer under this type of format," he said.
State board member Becky Taylor said the process needs to move forward carefully.
"We need to set this up so we can prove that this will work in the best way for North Carolina and for our families in North Carolina. It’s going to take all of us putting our heads together and doing it right and not just doing a willy-nilly kind of, 'OK, here we go. North Carolina's in the virtual charter business now,'" Taylor said. "If we do that, we're going to be on the newspaper and the TVs all across the nation, and I don't want to go there."