Judge puts virtual charter schools on hold
by Staff Writer
Some North Carolina students might get to trade waking up early to catch the school bus for taking public school classes in their pajamas without leaving the house.
But they’ll have to wait at least one year, thanks to an order by Wake County Superior Court Judge Abraham Penn Jones. The judge ruled June 29 that North Carolina Learns, Inc. could not begin enrolling students in its virtual charter school program in August.
The controversy began brewing in May 2011 when the N.C. Board of Education declined to review a charter application submitted by N.C. Learns. The board told the nonprofit that its members previously agreed to refrain from reviewing virtual charter school applications for one year.
“The state school board announced that its E-learning Commission would spend a year looking into virtual charters,” Joel Medley, state charter school director, said. “They would look into issues like funding, education quality and feasibility.”
That’s when N.C. Learns, instead of backing down, took its charter to the Cabarrus County Board of Education, which approved the application. N.C. Learns agreed to give Cabarrus County 4 percent of its public funds, an enticing prospect for the low-funded school district located outside of Charlotte.
The nonprofit would use education software from K12, a Virginia-based company. Virtual charters from more than 30 states use the company’s software to run their schools.
Enrollment, however, wouldn’t be limited to Cabarrus County. N.C. Learns projected that more than 2,750 kindergarten to high school students from North Carolina might sign on in August.
The N.C. Virtual Learning Academy would receive the same amount of state money for each enrolled student as brick-and-mortar charter schools if approved. Government dollars follow each student in the public school system whether he or she enrolls in a traditional public school, magnet program or charter school. Data from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction shows the state spent an average of $5,162 per student during the 2011-12 school year.
N.C. Learns approached the state board to sign off for final approval, but the state board refused to acknowledge the charter as legitimate.
“They said ‘no means no,’” Medley said.
An administrative judge, however, sided with N.C. Learns, ruling that the school could operate because the state board had failed to review the school’s application by its March 15 deadline.
Last month’s Superior Court decision overturned that ruling in an appeal by the state board. Eighty-nine of the state’s 115 public school boards, as well as the N.C. School Board Association, joined in filing the appeal.
The decision, Medley said, doesn’t preclude the N.C. Learning Academy from opening. It simply means that N.C. Learns will have to wait until the state board’s
E-learning Commission finishes its research, most likely in a couple years.
Chris Winthrow, chairman of N.C. Learns, released a statement following Jones’ decision.
“We are particularly disappointed and frustrated that the State Board of Education ignored our charter school application and never gave us a fair hearing,” his statement said.
School boards from Lincoln County, Iredell-Statesville and Mooresville Graded Schools voted to join the state board of education after the case reached the appeals level. School officials expressed concerns that students would leave traditional pubic schools to attend virtual charters, taking government per-pupil dollars with them.
Home school students, they said, could also enroll in the virtual charter, draining more money from state coffers. Officials also argued that the state shouldn’t adhere to the per-pupil formula used to fund traditional public and charter school because cyber schools don’t incur the same type of expenses.
Iredell-Statesville Schools Superintendent Brady Johnson said that data from other states show that virtual education might be ineffective.
“There is some significant data that has become available that shows the work of this private company (K12) in other states has been less than stellar and that academic achievement has been compromised,” Johnson told his board before it voted to join the suit.
The National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder released a 2011 report raised questions about the authenticity of virtual teachers’ certification, cheating and school accreditation.
“But the most salient virtual-education equity issue now facing policy makers is not the denials of higher-quality opportunities – it is the imposition of lower quality ones,” the study stated. “Particularly in a time of shrinking budgets and a focus on so-called turnarounds of urban schools, the temptation will be great for states and districts to substitute lower-cost, full-time virtual schools.”
But Jeff Kwitowski, senior vice-president of public affairs for K12, said parents should have options for how to educate their children.
Research from the University of Arkansas found that students enrolled in the cyber-school outperformed their counterparts in math and reading. No statistically significant negative effects were found.
He added that although virtual charter schools don’t have to fund the non-instructional expenses brick-and-mortar schools have to pay, they incur higher technology and curriculum costs.
Virtual charter schools also don’t meet requirements for special federal money that traditional charter schools qualify for, resulting in lower overall funding.
“It’s not for every student, but there are definitely students that it does work for,” he said.