Is there any limit to how far North Carolina and other states will go in breaking up their public education systems in the name of parental choice and school reform?
An emerging conflict here over a “virtual” – that is, online – statewide charter school, which would be managed for profit by an out-of-state company, using taxpayer dollars transferred from local school districts, may provide an answer.
That answer should be that some proposals, including this one, badly flunk the common sense test.
As related in Thursday’s N&O, school districts across the state – 60 of them so far, including Wake, Durham, Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Orange County – are lining up against plans for what’s called the North Carolina Virtual Academy. Although backed by a nonprofit group called N.C. Learns, the online academy, in which students would study at home on their computers, would be managed by the for-profit, Virginia-based K12 Inc.
As things stand, the State Board of Education, which has strong doubts about the Virtual Academy and how it would be financed, is appealing an administrative law judge’s decision to grant N.C. Learns a charter to open for the 2012-13 school year.
This came after N.C. Learns struck a deal with the Cabarrus County school board; the arrangement will give that district 4 percent of the online school’s revenue. By gaining approval in Concord, N.C. Learns finessed the State Board’s tabling, in effect, of an earlier application that N.C. Learns had submitted to it.
So: By obtaining its charter in one school district, the new virtual school gets to operate statewide (and with up to 6,500 students), without state approval.
If that seems an odd way to handle such a consequential matter, it’s because it is. A court hearing on the State Board’s appeal is set for June 25 in Wake County Superior Court. The N.C. School Boards Association backs the State Board. Their view ought to prevail. Clearly this decision should be made at the state level.
Beyond issues of procedure, however, the N.C. Learns proposal isn’t a smart move for North Carolina. Granted, online learning is all the rage, but mostly for particular courses, and especially at the college level. How effective will an online academy – especially one run for shareholder profit – really be in educating students from kindergarten through senior year in high school?
At real schools, public and charter, much is gained through the daily interactions that take place at school, between students and between students and teachers. Think back to your school days – was passing a test the only important thing? What about learning how to interact with others, and how to behave? Weren’t you ever inspired by a personal example or pushed in unexpected directions?
These are, after all, the formative years. To turn them over to online instructors (based who knows where) who have scant personal interaction with their students – surely that’s shortsighted and naive. Virtual schooling could supplement courses at bricks-and-mortar schools (including charter schools) but shouldn’t be entrusted with a child’s entire education.
Then there’s the money angle.
It would be one thing if parents were forking over to educate their children online. But here, because the virtual academy takes the form of a charter school, funding from each student’s school district – put at $6,753 a year per student – would flow into K12 Inc.’s coffers.
No wonder it’s a profitable enterprise. And no wonder school districts are objecting, and no wonder the State Board of Education says the payment issue needs study. Even conventional charter schools might properly dispute the logic that says an “academy” existing only on the Web should get the same funding they do.