A majority of North Carolina school systems, including Wake County, are joining the State Board of Education’s effort to prevent the opening of an online charter school that could divert more than $34 million a year in taxpayer dollars away from traditional public schools.
It’s a battle that’s pitting charter school supporters and a for-profit company that would run the academy against the state’s education establishment.
In addition to being the first online charter school in the state, the North Carolina Virtual Academy is vying to be the largest charter with as many as 6,526 kindergarten through high school students from across the state, a population larger than many of the state’s school districts.
But before the first students can log on from home in August, the school’s future will be decided in a court of law.
In January, the school got its initial approval from the Cabarrus County school board after agreeing to give Cabarrus four percent of its revenue.
By seeking local approval, the school bypassed the traditional route for getting charters approved at the state level.
The state Board of Education balked at granting its permission, prompting a successful lawsuit from the school. The state board is appealing the judge’s May 8 decision that allowed the school to open.
Wake County school board member Susan Evans said the virtual nature of the school means it could cause districts across the state to pay for local students who enroll in it.
“It is a Cabarrus County issue, but it affects our students and affects our funding,” she said.
Evans is part of the Democratic majority on the school board that voted 5-4 along party lines this week to enter the legal fight against the charter school.
The N.C. School Boards Association says it has now gotten 60 of the state’s 115 school districts to pass resolutions becoming parties to the appeal against the school.
The N.C. Virtual Academy is backed by a nonprofit group of North Carolina residents known as N.C. Learns, but the school will be managed by K12 Inc., a national, for-profit company that runs online schools in 29 states.
As many as 225,000 students across the country receive instruction at online charter schools via their home computers, according to K12. The state operates the N.C. Virtual Public School for students to supplement their classes, but not as their primary school.
“Online schools have served some students well who have not succeeded in traditional public schools,” said Jeff Kwitowski, a spokesman for Virginia-based K12, a publicly traded company. “Families like to have options.”
In March, K12 projected the company would have revenues of $685 million this year, 83 percent of which would come from the taxpayer-funded schools it manages.
K12 was profiled in a December New York Times article that said the company squeezes profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards. Kwitowski said the article was one-sided and inaccurate.
Last year, the N.C. General Assembly removed the 100-school cap on charter schools allowed in the state and interest in adding charters statewide has increased.
In this new environment, State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison announced at an October meeting that they wouldn’t consider applications for online charter schools until more questions were resolved. Among the questions, Harrison said in an interview Wednesday, is how these virtual schools would be funded.
Charter schools operate independently of local school districts, but the districts must pass along to charter schools roughly the same per pupil funding it would provide to a school within the district.
The new charter school is projecting it will receive $6,753 per student, leading to $18.6 million in its first year and that figure will rise to $34.5 million annually in five years.
Harrison said they need to look at whether virtual schools should get the same amount as a brick-and-mortar charter school.
After Harrison’s October announcement, N.C. Learns employed a rarely used provision in state law allowing charter applicants to seek initial approval from a local school district.
“I think they shopped around and looked for a board that might be willing to approve them,” Harrison said.
Efforts to reach Lynn Shue, chairman of the Cabarrus school board, were unsuccessful.
N.C. Learns then submitted the application to the state board for final approval to open this year. When the board took no action before a March 15 deadline to give final approval, N.C. Learns went to court.
In May, state Administrative Law Judge Beecher Gray ruled that the state board had lost its jurisdiction by not acting on the application by March 15. Gray granted the school a charter to open for the 2012-13 school year.
The board filed an appeal in Wake County Superior Court that will be heard June 25.
The N.C. School Boards Association has been urging school boards to join on in the group’s legal support of the state board’s appeal.
School districts such as Chapel Hill-Carrboro, Chatham, Durham and Orange approved resolutions to join in the litigation. The Wake school board agreed Tuesday after a heated closed-session discussion, some of which spilled over into the open session.
Republican school board members argued that there was no need for Wake to get involved.
“I think it’s anti-charter, and I don’t think we belong in it,” said school board member Debra Goldman, the Republican nominee for state auditor.
School board member John Tedesco said it was “completely inappropriate” and “bullying” to intervene in the Cabarrus school board’s decision to grant the charter.
Tedesco is a candidate in the July Republican primary for state schools superintendent, meaning he would work with the state board if he were to also win in November.
But Evans, a Democratic school board member in Wake, disagreed.
“I believe that this charter school obtained their approval through an improper process that usurped the proper channels and because of that I think it’s appropriate for us to get involved.” Evans said.