N.C. board delays action for online charter school
RALEIGH — With a warning from budget-writing legislators in the background, the North Carolina school board on Wednesday delayed action on rules that would make it much more difficult to open a taxpayer-funded charter school offering online-only classes.
The State Board of Education had been scheduled to vote Thursday on new standards for virtual charter schools. The General Assembly last year lifted a statewide limit on the number of charter schools, but didn't address online versions of charters, which are public schools given special permission to operate outside many normal rules.
Since then, a for-profit company tried to set up a virtual charter school in a deal with the Cabarrus County Board of Education. A judge this summer blocked the nonprofit school operator, which was funded by Virginia-based K12 Inc., from advancing. The online school anticipated enrolling about 1,800 students. If the nonprofit N.C. Learns were allowed to operate a school, the cost would have been about $18.5 million in state and local funds, Wake County Superior Court Judge Abraham Penn Jones ruled in June.
K12, the nation's largest online educator, has managed online schools in 29 states with mixed academic success. Florida education officials are investigating whether K12 violated state law by using uncertified teachers and then attempting to cover it up by asking certified teachers to sign the class rosters.
"I just feel strongly that a virtual school is different from brick-and-mortar schools," state school board chairman Bill Harrison said Wednesday.
While Harrison said some parts of the regulations needed retooling ahead of January's school board meeting, he acknowledged that the Republican-run General Assembly returning to work next month might have undone any action taken this week.
"The State Board of Education is acting outside of its authority with the proposed administrative policy," three GOP legislators who are leaders on education policy said in a letter to Harrison last month. The proposed policy "imposes a cap on virtual charter schools in direct violation" of last year's law lifting the statewide cap on charters, Sen. Jerry Tillman and Reps. Linda Johnson and Bryan Holloway wrote.
Harrison said the school board was stepping into a void left after lawmakers didn't address online versions of the charter schools.
"I don't feel we're infringing on their role," he said.
The school board's proposal included requirements that operators explain how a virtual charter school could improve on the state's existing virtual public school. The current online public school offers online classes to students trying to keep up with coursework, interested in subjects unavailable locally, prepping for tests, or seeking career planning help.
The new rules also would rule out virtual charter schools for elementary school students, limit the number to no more than three open and operating at once statewide, and top the student-to-teacher ratio at 50 to 1.
Operators would have to explain how the virtual charter school would deliver hands-on laboratory and physical experiences as part of the students' education. School leaders would need to define "attendance" and how it would be collected and monitored. A virtual charter school also would need to list all equipment, training, or software provided to students, what equipment must be provided by each student or family, and how the operators would help those who can't afford the gear.