Virtual charter school in Cabarrus County presents concrete challenge

School plan puts choice advocates at oddswith state officials

ablythe@newsobserver.comJune 25, 2012 

— A virtual charter school with the potential to siphon millions of dollars from traditional public schools will pit school-choice advocates against the state’s education establishment at a Monday court hearing.

A Wake County Superior Court judge is scheduled to hear arguments on whether an online charter school program that would be run by a for-profit company should be allowed to open in North Carolina in August, as a state administrative law judge ruled in May.

The state Board of Education hopes to persuade the Superior Court judge that proper procedures were not followed for a new program that represents one of the more overt commercial aspects of the school-choice movement.

“The ramifications of this far-reaching decision to unleash virtual public schools – unvetted, unmonitored, and unregulated – are vast, are immediate, and are unknown,” the state school board’s brief states.

The administrative law judge’s decision, school board attorneys add, “challenges the fabric of the public education system in North Carolina and is an affront to the Constitutional and statutory powers of the State Board of Education.”

The New York Times and The Washington Post have had scathing reviews of the program during the past year. The reports raised questions about whether K12, the biggest player in the online-school business, and other full-time online schools, in general, were beneficial to children or taxpayers, particularly as state budgets were being slashed.

At issue in the Wake County court case is whether North Carolina Learns, a nonprofit organization that hopes to set up the North Carolina Virtual Academy, deserves more scrutiny from the state school board.

A novel conundrum

Though the state’s publicly funded charter school system is nearly 16 years old, the North Carolina Virtual Academy proposal presents an issue that has yet to be thoroughly vetted here.

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.

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

In exchange for sponsoring the charter school, Cabarrus County would get free use of K12 online products in addition to a 4 percent cut of the $18 million in public money the charter school expects.

But so far, Cabarrus County is the only school district that supports the idea

Coalitions on both sides prepare

Eighty-nine of North Carolina’s 115 public school districts have joined forces under the umbrella of the North Carolina School Boards Association, seeking to intervene in the lawsuit, and bolster the state board of education’s legal challenge.

Other groups are seeking to be a part of the lawsuit. The N.C. Justice Center, a nonprofit organization that fights against poverty and advocates for the state’s low-income residents, has filed a legal brief in support of the state school board.

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

The judge in Wake County court on Monday is likely to weigh first whether to let the outside groups join the suit. Then the merits of the case could be argued.

Leanne Winner, a lobbyist for the N.C. School Boards Association, said the hearing, set to begin at 10 a.m., could have a big impact on “whether the state is going to have a chance to specifically talk about what needs to be in place if the state wants to go down the road” that North Carolina Virtual Academy proposes.

Anna Baird Choi, the lawyer representing PublicSchoolOptions.org, said her clients thought North Carolina school children should have access to such a program.

“This is a viable option,” Choi said.

Though the charter school submitted an application for review to the state school board, the members did not take any action, saying they were waiting for the completion of a study from the E-Learning Commission, which was looking into what kinds of standards should be set up for online schools.

In May, though, a state administrative law judge ruled the school could begin operating in August, that the state school board had acted improperly by not reviewing the application within the allotted time after the Cabarrus County board gave its temporary approval to the idea.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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