RALEIGH — A Wake County judge ruled Friday that a controversial charter school that planned to offer only online classes cannot open in August. The decision could delay the launch of any similar programs for at least a couple of years.
Superior Court Judge Abe Jones’ ruling puts a major obstacle in the path of N.C. Learns, a nonprofit organization that had planned to enroll more than 1,700 students in the state’s first virtual charter in the coming school year.
At issue was whether the N.C. Virtual Academy, the school proposed by N.C. Learns, needed approval from the State Board of Education. N.C. Learns used an unusual process through which it won approval from the school board in Cabarrus County, near Charlotte, to set up an online charter school that would have drawn students from across the state.
The State Board of Education did not vote on the project, opting to pass on a proposal that raises vexing issues about online learning, funding formulas and quality control for students being educated with public dollars outside brick-and-mortar classrooms. A state “E-Learning Commission” has been tasked with considering new policies, but it might be 2014 before new online charter school proposals could be thoroughly vetted by the state board, members said.
“The concern here is we’re not ready to approve an online charter school at this time,” said Bill Harrison, chairman of the state school board.
Under the N.C. Virtual Academy proposal, N.C. Learns had planned to get K12, a for-profit company that has become one of the biggest players in the online education business, to run the program.
Advocates said the proposal would have given school-choice advocates more options.
Chris Withrow, chairman of N.C. Learns, said he is disappointed and frustrated by the state board’s decision to forgo consideration of the Virtual Academy, particularly in a year after state lawmakers made it possible to add more charter schools in this state.
“It is a sad day for parents and children in North Carolina who need this public school option,” Withrow said in a prepared statement. “We are particularly disappointed and frustrated that the State Board of Education ignored our charter school application and never gave us a fair hearing.
“The Legislature passed a law lifting the charter school cap with the intent to provide more public school options to children throughout North Carolina,” the statement said. “By not acting on our application and by unilaterally declaring a moratorium on certain types of charter schools, the State Board has undercut the charter school law and will of the Legislature.”
Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, a Republican from Cabarrus County and the attorney representing the online program, said N.C. Learns has not decided whether to appeal Jones’ ruling.
But he was insistent that Jones’ order is not a death knell for online charter schools in North Carolina. “Absolutely not,” Hartsell said.
Parents sought option
The academy, as proposed, would have offered online courses for students from kindergarten through high school. The program would have been based in Cabarrus County, but hoped to pull in as many as 2,750 students from across the state the first year.
Lauren Bumgardner, 21, a Raleigh resident who has a 3-year-old daughter, was at the Wake County Superior Court hearing, hoping for a different result.
Bumgardner, who works in the real estate business, said she is not certain that she wants to send her daughter to Wake County public schools when the time comes and was interested in an online choice.
“I don’t particularly favor public schools,” Bumgardner said, “because a lot of children get lost in the system.”
N.C. Learns won approval from the Cabarrus County school board in February to base the online charter school in that district. But it could have enrolled students from across the state, siphoning millions of dollars from traditional public schools in districts outside Cabarrus County.
Under the state’s current educational funding formula, local school districts must give thousands of dollars to charters educating children who otherwise would have been enrolled in public schools. Because an online charter school might have appeal to parents who want to educate their children at home, the proposal also could have meant that the local districts would have had to start paying for home-schooled children.
“As a state, we have responsibility for all our children,” Harrison said. “The funding piece is a function of the General Assembly, and they don’t seem to want to provide that.”
A gain for Cabarrus
Cabarrus County, one of the lowest-funded school systems, would have gained 4 percent of the public money pulled in by the online charter school.
The concept pitted school choice advocates against the state’s education establishment, tossing up many issues that had not been thoroughly vetted by the state school board.
Jones said in his order, which he read in open court, that the state board is in the best position, legally and otherwise, to consider the proposal.
After state law was changed to open the state to more charter schools, the state board developed a “fast-track” process for applicants who wanted to open a new charter by fall 2012. In doing so, Jones’ order states, the state board “made it very clear that applicants would be subjected to a very strict, rigorous process.” Applicants who could not meet such “rigorous, ready-to-start standards” could apply for a slower review in April.
The fast-track process, it turned out, was only for traditional charter schools, and those seeking to begin the online program did not seek guidance from the Office of Charter Schools, Jones added.
The Cabarrus County school board, which approved the proposal 5-2 in February, “is not experienced in, nor equipped as the State Board of Education, with the staff and know-how to review, evaluate, and approve the application of a charter school designed to serve a statewide clientele, nor is it authorized to give final approval for such operation,” Jones said in his order.
Cabarrus County was the only school district that supported the idea. Eighty-nine of North Carolina’s 115 public school districts joined under the umbrella of the N.C. School Boards Association to bolster the state Board of Education’s legal challenge of the online charter.