Two virtual charter schools on track for North Carolina

Two virtual charter schools, including a school that has run into trouble in other states, are closer to enrolling North Carolina students.

A special committee on Wednesday recommended that North Carolina Virtual Academy, to be managed by K12 Inc., and N.C. Connections Academy, affiliated with Connections Education, be allowed to participate in a four-year program that will allow thousands of students from kindergarten through high school to enroll in online schools.

Students in virtual charters take courses at home instead of in physical school buildings. They communicate with teachers and classmates online. Younger students are greatly dependent on adults at home, often parents or guardians, for their education.

Both schools received unanimous endorsements from an interviewing committee that included representatives from the State Board of Education, its charter school advisory board, state education staff, and an outside evaluator. Some on the panel had to think hard about approving K12, and the company was asked to respond to questions about its performance in other states.

Tennessee’s education commissioner last year threatened to close Tennessee Virtual Academy, managed by K12, unless student performance showed significant improvement. Students in the Tennessee online charter had minimal learning growth.

The board of trustees for the K12 school in Pennsylvania decided not to renew its management contract with the company, though it will continue to use its curriculum.

Mary Gifford, a senior vice president for K12, said no boards or districts have terminated contracts with the company, though “a handful of contracts have not been renewed.” She framed the situation in Tennessee not as a threatened closure, but as the sunset of the law allowing virtual charters.

Pilot program

Dozens of states have virtual charter schools, though North Carolina for years had resisted them.

Legislators this year required that the State Board of Education approve two virtual charters as four-year pilot programs to open in 2015. North Carolina Virtual Academy and N.C. Connections Academy were the only applicants for the two spots. Board of Education member Becky Taylor, who was on the screening panel, said the panel and the board were free to reject the applicants because the board could always conduct another search for participants.

The state board will discuss the applicants in January with votes scheduled for February.

“I think we still have some talking to do,” Taylor said after the interviews. The board will monitor the virtual schools closely, she said.

“If our kids have failed, that falls on all of us,” she said.

Nonprofits working with K12 have tried several avenues over the years to get the online charter into North Carolina, including a lawsuit. Over the years, the company and nonprofits working with them have had influential help. Former state Rep. Jeff Barnhart and Franklin Freeman, a former top aide to Mike Easley when he was governor, lobby for K12. Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, a lawyer, represented a nonprofit group formed to host the school.

Bryan Setser, who ran N.C. Virtual Public School – the program that offers online courses for state high school students – has tried several times since he left that job in 2011 to get Connections Academy approved.

Poor student performance

A report this year by the National Education Policy Center, based in Colorado, recommended states slow or stop the growth of online charters until the reasons behind poor student performance and low graduation rates are addressed.

Of 231 virtual schools reporting student performance on tests, only about a third had acceptable ratings, according to the report. Virtual schools should be required to devote more resources to instruction, especially in reducing the ratio of students to teachers “given that all measures of school performance indicate insufficient or ineffective instruction.”

Rep. D. Craig Horn, a Weddington Republican and a leader of education and education budget committees, said the state won’t know whether virtual charters are a good idea unless it tries them.

“I’m trying to be a reasonable person that says, ‘Yeah, this might work. Let’s see,’ ” he said. “Let’s not get carried away. Let’s see.”

Many questions

Both schools propose to offer online instruction for students from kindergarten through high school. School representatives faced a number of questions about how students and parents would interact with teachers, how teachers would gauge progress, and how students would get to testing sites.

Paul Davis, a state education employee, asked the K12 group why it chose a K-12 school rather than one covering only high school grades.

“A 9-12 school might be more comfortable for people understanding virtual charters,” he said. “Not to be argumentative, but elementary virtual schools almost sound like public-funded home-schools.”

Young children use digital devices with ease, said Travis Mitchell, president of Communities in Schools in Wake County and a member of the Virtual Academy board of directors. It’s important to get data on engagement and use for incoming kindergartners, he said.

After both schools won approval, Mark Jewell, vice president of the N.C. Association of Educators, said the state shouldn’t experiment with virtual charters given K12’s record in other states.

“Anybody who knows anything about teaching children knows North Carolina children are going to suffer,” he said.