North Carolina children as young as 5 may soon be able to receive their public school education online from for-profit companies.
The State Board of Education plans to vote Thursday on a special application for virtual schools that want to run public charters and receive taxpayer money.
The board may consider charters that could sign up students statewide – though local school districts are worried about having to share funds with the online schools.
Virtual charters operate throughout the country, and companies are eager to gain a toehold in North Carolina. Representatives of at least two companies notified the state they want to begin enrolling North Carolina students in online charters in 2014.
The move to consider virtual charters for approval alongside applications for brick-and-mortar schools comes after months of controversy over a lawsuit brought by N.C. Learns, a nonprofit that wants to bring to the state an online school managed by K12, the nation’s biggest for-profit selling online education. The charter proposed to enroll as many as 6,526 students from kindergarten through high school statewide.
After the state board last year refused to consider the charter application, N.C. Learns appealed. Dozens of school boards from around the state united to persuade a Wake Superior Court judge to prevent the online school from opening last fall. School board members said then that they weren’t prepared to consider requests for online schools. The vote Thursday would give virtual school operators a way for their startup proposals to get a hearing.
State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison has been critical of K12 in the past. National newspapers have written critically of the company, and the Florida Department of Education launched an investigation into the company last year on the suspicion that it was violating state law by using uncertified teachers.
N.C. Learns is appealing the Superior Court ruling and has informed the state Department of Public Instruction that it intends to apply again.
Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, a lawyer who represents N.C. Learns, did not return calls, and a call to K12’s national office in Virginia was not returned.
Harrison said he supports virtual schools, but has concerns about transparency with online companies. The state runs an online school, the N.C. Virtual Public School, that allows high school students to take courses, but it is not open to elementary school students. Courses open to middle school students are limited.
The state board still has concerns about the funding of online charters that it did not address. Virtual charters will receive money according to the same formula that funds all charter schools, even though the virtual schools don’t have to open and maintain buildings. Charter schools receive public money for students, but not for buildings.
Any changes in store for virtual charter funding would have to come from the legislature, Harrison said.
Leanne Winner, lobbyist for the N.C. School Boards Association, said opening the state to online charter schools would be a bad idea without first answering those funding questions. There should be “a close examination of cost and whether they should be getting the same dollars,” she said.
Bryan Setser, former executive director of the N.C. Virtual Public School, wants to help start a statewide online charter using a company called Connections Academy. Setser said he’s been impressed by Connections and the work it does with parents and students.
“Unfortunately, it’s always about corporations, ‘bad,’ and public schools, ‘good,’ and that’s not the right discussion,” he said.
Setser said the state school board’s approach to virtual charters is standing in the way of innovation. “You’ve got to provide opportunities for charters to distinguish themselves,” he said. “It still feels very much like a traditional school application. The environments we’re moving into are not traditional.”