Online charters near approval as NC education board debates student access

The State Board of Education is preparing to approve two online charter schools Thursday that would begin enrolling students for fall.

But the board on Wednesday had still not decided what its contract with the nonprofit groups running the schools would say.

At issue is whether the nonprofits operating the schools should be required to find “learning coaches” for students whose parents cannot fill that role. In virtual charter schools, students do much of their work online. The setup expects that adult learning coaches, usually parents, will work with students at home. Learning coaches are crucial, particularly in the early grades.

State law mandated that the State Board approve two schools for four-year pilot programs to start this year. N.C. Connections Academy, affiliated with the education conglomerate Pearson, is on deck for approval, as is N.C. Virtual Academy, which is affiliated with K12, Inc. They were the only applicants for the two slots. Each school can enroll up to 1,500 in its first year.

The proposed charter agreement says the schools must make sure each student is provided a learning coach.

The requirement came up as the board revisited the issue of student accessibility to the online schools, a topic that has troubled some members.

Evelyn Bulluck, the local school board chairwoman for the Nash-Rocky Mount district and an adviser to the state board, said she didn’t want children with working parents to be discouraged or prohibited from enrolling.

“North Carolina would not institute a law that excludes a whole segment of children,” she said.

But Board Vice-chairman A.L. Collins said requiring schools to provide learning coaches may be contrary to state law.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a member of the board, said that as the state expands school choices it comes with the recognition that not all choices are appropriate for everyone.

The proposed agreement also includes conflict of interest and nepotism clauses that would prohibit the virtual schools’ board members from employment with a for-profit company that provides school services. The provision would also bar the CEO’s relatives from employment at the school.

Nepotism was cited as an issue at traditional brick-and-mortar charters. It was raised most recently in the state audit of a closed Kinston charter school, where the CEO’s wife was the board chairman and dean of student and his daughter was the academic officer.