Online charter schools spawn NC debate

The state budget that Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law earlier this month includes a provision requiring the State Board of Education to authorize two online charter schools to serve K-12 students by next fall.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The state budget that Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law earlier this month includes a provision requiring the State Board of Education to authorize two online charter schools to serve K-12 students by next fall.

North Carolina already has one of the nation's biggest online public school programs, but it's intended to supplement a traditional education. Virtual charter schools would replace a traditional school completely.

Supporters say they provide options for non-traditional students, but skeptics say they're a handout of taxpayer money to big corporations that don't always deliver a quality product.

Connections Academy, the nation's second largest for-profit online school, could win approval from the education board as soon as next week to begin operating in North Carolina for the 2015-16 school year.

Bryan Setser, North Carolina president for Connections Academy, said the online school provides parents with more educational options. He said he's had thousands of inquiries from home-schooled students and those who have "a non-traditional scenario," such as students with Asperger's syndrome or those playing a sport that requires extensive travel.

"We're not serving half of the state or 10 percent of the state or seeking to," Setser said. "We're seeking to serve a very small, specific group of students that need this as an option."

Connections Academy already operates in 26 states and wants to start in North Carolina with 1,000 students in grades 6 to 12.

In drafting the budget provision for the virtual charter schools, lawmakers ignored many of the education board's recommendations. For example, lawmakers allowed the online schools to receive both state and local funding for students, while regular charter schools receive only state money. State law also lets the online schools enroll more students and have more students drop out than educators wanted.

Online charter schools have had some big problems in other states. Leanne Winner, director of governmental relations for the North Carolina School Boards Association, cited a study of eight virtual charters in Pennsylvania that showed all eight performed much more poorly than traditional public schools in that state.

Tennessee's education chief recently ordered that a virtual charter school in that state cease operations by the end of the 2014-15 school year if the academic performance of its students doesn't significantly improve.

K12 Inc., the nation's largest for-profit online school, operates the troubled virtual Tennessee school. The company took North Carolina to court two years ago after state officials prevented it from opening in this state. North Carolina's charter school advisory board more recently rejected a second application from K12.

Setser, who previously headed the North Carolina Virtual Public School for four years, said some public schools likewise show below-average achievement, and his goal is to provide "a quality experience."

"Public schools have had results that are great, average and poor. So, what this is really about is offering quality options that have the same opportunity to meet or exceed state standards that public schools or charters have," he said.

In addition to student achievement questions, critics note that providing state and local money for enrolling students previously taught in a home school will throw state and school district budgets out of whack because neither had accounted for these students before.

"School districts are going to have a very difficult time planning," Winner said. "They’re not going to know until school opens that year how many students are going from their district to one of the virtual charter schools."

The School Boards Association isn't opposed to online schools, although they will take money away from regular schools, she said. She just worries that the state law requires two of them to be up and running next school year, no matter what.

"We have created an environment where somebody could put together an application and it's not what the State Board of Education believes is the right direction for North Carolina, and they have to accept it anyway," she said.


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