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State Board set to approve ‘fast track’ for charter schools and online charter plan

Charter schools have expanded quickly in the past three years, and now the growth is poised to take on a new, virtual dimension.

The legislature required the state Board of Education to approve two online charter schools next year as part of a pilot program. The state board is set to OK a framework and timetable for online school applicants to get considered. Applications for online schools looking to get into the test cycle are due in October.

The state has talked for years about how to handle online charters. The previous state education boards have been deeply skeptical of them. K12, an online school, has sued the state trying to gain entry.

Approval of an online charter could come as soon as Thursday. N.C. Connections Academy is one of the 12 charter schools an advisory board has forwarded to the state board for consideration to open in fall 2015. N.C. Connections Academy followed the established path for charter approval, and board members have discussed being in the unusual spot of approving an online charter as it would the brick-and-mortar schools, while preparing to launch test online programs that would open at the same time.

Board member Becky Taylor, who is in charge of the subcommittee that oversees charter school policies, would not say whether she would recommend the board approve N.C. Connections Academy on Thursday.

Even without the online schools, charter policies are on pace for more changes that could seed quick growth. Eleven traditional charters that would open in August 2015 are up for approval Thursday, and the board is poised to approve a “fast-track” option for charter applicants that have experience operating successful schools and want to copy them. Charters on the fast track would not have to go through the typical planning year, and could open months after their approval at the start of an academic year.

The first fast-track applications would be submitted in July and if approved, could open in 2016 rather than 2017.

The fast-track option recognizes that the state has experienced charter operators who know how to get a successful school started, said Eddie Goodall, executive director of the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association.

“This just minimizes the time needed to get a school up,” he said.

Since the legislature in 2011 removed the 100-school limit on charters, their numbers have grown to 149.

Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of Public Schools First NC, said other states have found trouble by expanding charter schools too quickly.

There hasn’t been a deep look at student achievement at the charters that opened in the last few years, Brannon said.

“A smart plan would be evaluating those charters on an annual basis,” she said. “If they’re working well for students, let’s applaud them. If not, let’s not waste another year of a child’s time and taxpayer dollars.”

The trend of charters concentrating in large counties would continue with this latest round of school approvals. Of the 12 new charters up for approval, one, PAVE Southeast Raleigh Charter School, is in Wake; two, KIPP Durham College Preparatory and Excelsior Classical Academy, are in Durham; and three, the Charlotte Lab School, VERITAS Community School and Queen City STEM School, are in Mecklenburg.

Durham in the past has formally protested approval of new charters, saying that concentration of charters in the district is draining resources from traditional public schools. The process of charter applications no longer formally provides for input from school districts.

Bonner: 919-829-4821; Twitter: @Lynn_Bonner
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