Virtual charters have failed early tests

Republican lawmakers have made expansion of charter schools a priority. They succeeded in getting a 100-school cap lifted in 2011. Lawmakers also required that the State Board of Education approve two “virtual” charter schools as four-year pilot programs to open in 2015.

Generally, there’s no harm in testing a concept, but educators are rightly skeptical that this test is also about undermining funding for conventional public schools.

Though charters, virtual and otherwise, are funded by taxpayers, they operate free of rules regarding curricula, teacher qualifications and other standards that govern regular public schools. When the charter movement started more than 20 years ago, the idea was that charters would experiment in ways that might benefit mainstream schools. It was not, as some now advocate, to create an alternative public school system.

The performance of North Carolina’s charters has been uneven, and many of the schools have been woefully out of balance in terms of racial and economic diversity, and some have delivered poorly when measured by student performance on tests. That’s not true of all charters, but it is true of some.

Problems elsewhere

Now the virtual charters, run by companies with other such schools in other states, are coming into the picture here and there is justifiable trepidation on the part of some educators. Consider that K12 Inc., one of the companies which will run a virtual charter here, has had problems in other states. A K12-managed school in Tennessee had poor student learning growth. And a board of trustees for a K12 school in Pennsylvania did not renew the company’s management contract.

But K12 had strong lobbyists in North Carolina and it got the recommendation from a committee that was charged with interviewing applicants to run the virtual charters.

Virtual schools do their teaching online. Some teachers from traditional schools wonder howstudents can have the needed amount of interaction with teachers they only see on a computer screen. Other critics say virtual charters are like publicly-funded home schools since parents share some of the responsibilities for instruction. These are entirely valid concerns.

Displaced students

The other problem is: What happens to the students who will be “enrolled” in these virtual charters if they don’t work out? Will these kids simply be left to fall behind and then have to catch up through conventional schools? That would not be fair to them. And they shouldn’t be treated like educational guinea pigs.

If virtual charters were a proven success in many other places, some sort of officially sanctioned virtual charter, or a charter with partial virtual classes, might be worth a look. But this is a type of school that is far from proven, and the same can be said of K12’s record.

Republican lawmakers, however, seem determined to push on with charters no matter what legitimate questions have arisen or may arise. Their urgency is most revealing, and bespeaks more of a political agenda than an educational one.

They’ve pushed more charters even as they’ve starved conventional public schools and thrown more expense to counties that can’t afford it. They’ve also advocated for a voucher program, initially aimed at poor families who think their kids are getting an inferior education in public schools, to put public money into parents’ hands.

Advocates of the voucher program don’t go so far as to say it will remain something only for lower-income families. What they really want to do, though they won’t say so, is open voucher programs for all parents, something that would drain money from public schools that have served this state and its families so well.

To improve education requires experimentation. That’s a process lawmakers should encourage. But in the case of virtual charters, the results – or lack of them – are already clear.