State Board of Education appeals ruling on virtual charter

After missing a key opportunity to review a virtual charter school that would be the first of its kind in North Carolina, the state school board was in court on Monday essentially asking for a mulligan. Whether it gets one could determine the state’

ablythe@newsobserver.comJune 24, 2012 

— After missing a key opportunity to review a virtual charter school that would be the first of its kind in North Carolina, the state school board was in court on Monday essentially asking for a mulligan.

Whether it gets one could determine the state’s ability to have a guiding hand in a new educational concept that could wreak havoc on the traditional school funding model. Eighty-nine of the state’s 115 local school districts have joined the state’s effort to slow private attempts to tap charter school funding for online programs that could enroll thousands of students, but entail no brick and mortar expense.

Such programs have been launched in other states and run by for-profit companies. The virtual schools have drawn sharp criticism for their high public costs and poor educational results.

On Monday, Wake County Superior Court Judge Abe Jones heard the state’s appeal of an administrative law judge’s ruling that would allow the state’s first virtual charter school to open in August. The school, to be known as the N.C. Virtual Academy, won local approval from the Cabarrus County school board earlier this year. When the state board balked at reviewing the school’s request for approval, the nonprofit that shepherded the proposal – N.C. Learns – persuaded an administrative law judge that the state had forfeited its right to weigh in.

Though he did not rule at the close of the hearing, Jones said he did not have the expertise to assess the merits of a program with the potential to siphon millions of dollars from the state’s traditional public schools. He said several times he thought the state school board erred by not taking up the proposal within an allotted time, but he was not sure the administrative law judge’s remedy for that error – allowing the program to start in August – was the best solution.

Jones told attorneys representing organizations with a stake in the issue that he would announce his ruling in open court Friday at 2:30 p.m.

The N.C. Virtual Academy, as designed, would be based in Cabarrus County, and managed by K12, a for-profit outfit that runs online schools in 23 states. The idea is to pull in some 2,750 students from across the state the first year. Cabarrus granted the approval after being promised a 4 percent share of the public money the schools expects to receive from districts across the state.

The academy would receive several thousand dollars in public money for each student enrolled. Those funds would come at the expense of local school districts, which must give to charter schools educating children who otherwise would have been enrolled in a public school there. It could also mean that local school districts will have to start paying for home-schooled children who sign up for the virtual charter school.

Fletcher Hartsell, a Republican state senator from Cabarrus County and a lawyer representing his home county school board, told Jones on Monday that already some 1,700 students from 900 families were ready to enroll in the program.

Hartsell said the state school board had an opportunity to review the proposal and chose not to, ignoring laws relating to charter schools that allow approval by a local school board and then second consideration by the state board within a short time-frame.

“It’s no wonder we can’t get literacy in this state if we can’t get the state board to read the law,” Hartsell said in frustration toward the end of the hearing on Monday.

Laura Crumpler, an assistant attorney general representing the state school board, described the online charter program’s procedural move as an “end-run” around a state school board that was in the process of developing standards for online schools through an E-Learning Commission.

She challenged the process, too, set out by Administrative Law Judge Beecher Gray. Gray ruled on May 18 that because the state school board had not acted on N.C. Learn’s proposal by March 15 that the online school could take in students by August.

Jones, a former administrative law judge, said he thought the finding that the school board was in error was correct, but he thought there was a better remedy than giving the online program permission to proceed.

“The question here is why should the State Board of Education be excluded?” Jones said.

“The system broke down here,” Jones added later in the hearing. “You’re asking me to fix the flow here.”

Jones said he was inclined to take a more conservative approach and set out a limited period in which the state board must act.

If he decides to take such an approach, the school board could vote against the online charter school, which could set up a new round of legal challenges and limit the possibility of any students enrolling by August.

So far, Cabarrus County is the only school district that supports the idea.

Jones allowed the N.C. School Boards Association and the N.C. Justice Center, a nonprofit organization that fights against poverty and advocates for the state’s low-income residents, to join the suit in support of the state school board.

PublicSchoolOptions.org, a nonprofit whose headquarters are in Arlington, Va., was allowed to be a part of the suit in support of the virtual charter school.

The proposal has pitted school-choice advocates against the state’s education establishment.

Jones said he thought the state school board was in a better position than the courts to hear and weigh such a diversity of opinions.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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