Online charter school bid rejected by three judge panel

Dec. 04, 2013 @ 02:43 AM

RALEIGH — A three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals on Tuesday unanimously rejected a bid by a company to establish an online-only charter school for students whose parents opt out of existing public school classrooms.

The court ruled the State Board of Education was entitled to delay consideration of virtual charter schools while studying how best to manage them and create rules for their operation. The nonprofit called North Carolina Learns, which was created by Virginia-based K12 Inc., sought special permission from the state to operate outside many normal school rules.

But the school board held off because the General Assembly hadn't addressed online versions of charters in 2011 when it lifted a statewide limit on their numbers.

Under state law, the State Board of Education "is vested with sole authority regarding charter schools in North Carolina, including all decisions regarding the formation and operation of such schools," Judge Wanda G. Bryant wrote for the court panel

The unanimous ruling means an appeal to the state Supreme Court depends on the high court's desire to weigh in.

A K12 spokesman and lawyers for North Carolina Learns did not respond to requests for comment.

The nonprofit and K12 Inc., the nation's largest online educator, sought to set up a charter school with a statewide reach in a deal with Cabarrus County's school board. North Carolina Learns agreed to pay 4 percent of its revenue to the school system in Cabarrus, located north of Charlotte, as well as pay K12. A state judge last year blocked the plan from advancing without getting approval from the state school board.

Rules adopted by the state school board in January — 14 months after North Carolina Learns first submitted a "fast track" application for its planned school — impose conditions on operating the schools.

The new rules ban online courses before students reach the sixth grade and limit the student-to-teacher ratio at 50-to-1. Operators would be required to have a physical location within North Carolina and describe how they would provide equipment and Internet connections to enrolled students.

A state charter would be lost if operators fail to test at least 95 percent of enrolled students for academic progress, post a graduation rate 10 percent below the overall state average for two out of three consecutive years, or see 15 percent of more of its students withdraw in two out of three years.

North Carolina already operates an online public school that offers classes to students trying to keep up with coursework, interested in subjects unavailable locally, prepping for tests, or seeking career planning help. A virtual charter school would receive the same state funding as the state's existing virtual public school, but not additional local funds, the state school board's rules state.

The state Superior Court judge who last year blocked North Carolina Learns estimated it could enroll about 1,800 students statewide and collect about $18.5 million in state and local funds.

Herndon-based K12 has managed online public schools in about 30 states with mixed academic success. Test results for students in a virtual academy operated by the company In Tennessee have been among the state's worst in each of its two years of existence. An investigation by the inspector general for Florida's Department of Education found that K12 assigned teachers in one school district to classes they weren't certified to teach and recorded educators as teaching students with whom they had no contact.

The company said in April that it did not intentionally avoid Florida's teacher certification requirements but was responsible for some reporting and record-keeping errors.