Serious questions on virtual charters for NC

Despite major concerns and numerous unanswered questions, a special committee appointed by the State Board of Education recently recommended approving two applicants seeking to create virtual charter schools in North Carolina.

While the concept of introducing more technology into classrooms is almost universally lauded, virtual charter schools are a relatively new concept that allows children to take courses online on a computer at home and to spend no time in a brick-and-mortar classroom.

Even if they felt the schools would fail students, committee members might have been unsure as to whether they were authorized to block the applicants. A provision slipped into the General Assembly’s budget this past summer directed the State Board of Education to open two virtual charter school pilot programs, and there were only two applicants.

Committee members were clearly uneasy about how these schools could ensure children, particularly in the early grades, receive a quality education without any in-person interactions with teachers, peers, counselors and other support personnel that occur in traditional public, charter and private schools. The committee was especially concerned about the North Carolina Virtual Academy’s proposal given the school’s affiliation with the embattled for-profit virtual school management company, K12 Inc.

The K12-backed application proposed staggering student-teacher ratios of 150:1 in high school and 50:1 in the early grades. These ratios stand in stark contrast to the North Carolina Connections Academy’s proposal, which calls for an average ratio of 38:1 across all grades, and to the 16:1 ratio that is considered the best practice for traditional schools. Both schools promised a great deal of individualized and small group instruction, but it is hard to imagine how K12 and its North Carolina affiliate can deliver on that promise. There simply are not enough hours in a week for a teacher to provide one-on-one instruction to 150 children.

Results from other states where K12 has already established virtual charter schools suggest that its model is not working. The NCAA announced in April that it would no longer accept credits from 24 schools affiliated with K12 because they fail to comply with NCAA course requirements. A Stanford University study in Pennsylvania found that K12’s largest school, Agora Cyber Charter School, produced learning gains that were significantly smaller than traditional public and charter schools for all subgroups of children. Agora plans to sever its relationship with K12 when its contract expires this year.

In Tennessee, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman ordered K12’s Tennessee Virtual Academy to close at the end of the 2014-15 school year, citing three straight years of poor academic performance and almost complete lack of growth in student achievement. Huffman did say that he might relent if “the school manages to defy the odds of its past performance and get adequate results,” but added “there is nothing to indicate to me they are going to be able to achieve that level of performance.”

K12’s own investors have even sued the company for overestimating its growth prospects and student performance, and the Securities Exchange Commission has asked for more public disclosure of test scores and attrition rates.

There has been essentially no opportunity for public input on the wisdom of opening these schools in North Carolina because the statute directing their creation was never discussed or debated in any legislative committee. There is no way of knowing why legislators felt North Carolina should go in this new direction or, indeed, which legislators stand behind the decision.

The state board’s special committee repeatedly heard the argument that the K12 proposal is a “pilot program” so there is not much risk. Yet the program will serve more students than 22 school districts in the first year, and by the fourth year the program will serve over 5,000 students. North Carolina will spend more per year on virtual charter schools than it currently does on textbooks for the state’s 1.5 million schoolchildren at a time when available funds are dwindling.

It also was argued that we cannot know how virtual charter schools will work in North Carolina until we try. But, of course, we do know about K12’s failures in other states, and there is no reason to think North Carolina’s experience will be different.

The bottom line: Educational investments should be targeted to programs with proven track records of improving student outcomes. Our children are not guinea pigs – we owe it to them to ensure that any program they are exposed to receives the highest level of scrutiny before being implemented. The full State Board of Education should examine these recommendations with great skepticism when it gets its chance in January.

Matt Ellinwood is a policy analyst at the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project