Politics & Government

A virtual charter school ‘divorce’ leaves 2,400 students caught in the middle

More than 2,400 students are caught in the middle of a fight between one of North Carolina’s two virtual charter schools and the for-profit education company that receives millions of dollars a year to manage the school.

N.C. Connections Academy wants state permission to no longer be managed by Pearson Online and Blended Learning, part of the international company Pearson that publishes textbooks and sells a wide range of education products. The fight between the two sides has gotten bitter, with a lawsuit being filed.

Tuesday’s hearing before the N.C. Charter Schools Advisory Board was full of accusations and heated words made by both the school and Pearson. Advisory board members said they need more time to decide whether to recommend that the State Board of Education approve the school’s request — a step that could decide the fate of the school.

“We’ve been calling this a divorce, and it’s a divorce that has 2,400 children involved,” CSAB vice chairman Steven Walker said at Tuesday’s meeting. “A pretty weighty decision and I understand that the (N.C. Connections) board has said that time’s of the essence, and it may be. But we can’t rush to try to make a decision that’s not right on this.”

The controversy at Connections Academy is the latest chapter in the state’s tumultuous efforts to pilot the use of online charter schools. Online charter schools have been a source of national and local controversy.

Connections Academy and N.C. Virtual Academy, which is managed by K12 Inc., both opened in 2015 in what was originally supposed to be a four-year pilot program ordered by state lawmakers.

Both online schools have received D grades for their academic performance for the past three years and are on the state’s list of “continually low-performing schools.”

Despite the poor academic results, state lawmakers showed their support for the two schools last summer by extending the pilot program to 2023.

On Tuesday, Connections and Pearson traded accusations over why the school wasn’t performing better.

Bridget Phifer, chairwoman of Connection’s board, charged that Pearson wasn’t giving them a curriculum aligned with state standards. She also accused Pearson of not giving the school’s leaders more accountability, responsibility and information on how money was being spent.

“So because they didn’t want to give us the accountability that we were responsible for ... if something happens they’re not going to jail, we are,” Phifer yelled at the meeting. “It’s my name that was on those documents.”

J.W. Ragley, vice president for state and strategic client relations for Pearson, denied the school’s allegations. He accused Connections of deviating from the education model the company offers at the online schools it manages.

“We would like them (students) to be in a Connections Academy model school when it’s working, when it’s following the core model, which this school has deviated from and the results and academics have shown a decline because of it,” Ragley said.

Pearson wants to take back some of the day-to-day control it ceded to the school in 2017. The company also wants to become the employer for the teachers.

Connection’s board balked at the proposal and wants to run the school itself using products from different companies.

Phifer said ending the school’s relationship with Pearson would save $5 million a year that would be reinvested into higher teacher salaries, more computers and building up the budget surplus. Data provided by the school indicate Pearson is being paid at least $8.3 million this school year out of the $17.2 million budget.

Advisory board members said their ability to deal with the school’s request is complicated by the pilot requiring Connections to be allowed to remain open for four more years. Walker, the CSAB vice chairman, said it felt like they were being asked to be mediators and arbitrators in the dispute.

After consulting with the board’s attorney in closed session, CSAB announced it wants Connections and Pearson to return at its April’s meeting.

“Twenty-four hundred students and I think that’s our number one concern,” Walker said. “It’s a private dispute between Connections Academy and Pearson. Y’all are going to have to work it out. Hopefully work it out before you get back to us.”

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