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'Virtual' Charter School Looks To Cabarrus, Seeks BOE Partnership

North Carolina's charter school law doesn't differentiate between traditional schools with brick and mortar schoolhouses and online ones. So far that hasn't been a problem since the state doesn't have a virtual charter school. But one group is trying to start one and that's raising a lot of questions. North Carolina Virtual Academy would draw students from all over the state. It would be run by a for-profit company and it would receive as much taxpayer money as any other charter. Imagine you're a kid who has an illness that makes it difficult to leave home, or you get bullied all the time, or you're way ahead of your grade. This classroom might appeal to you. It's just you and a friendly voice on the computer. "This is your research partner speaking. I'll be guiding you through your ocean exploration," says the voice as the screen asks you to identify various fish. This lesson is taught by a for-profit company called K12 Inc. K12 wants to start an online charter school in Cabarrus County called the North Carolina Virtual Academy. In fact, this would be the first online charter school in North Carolina. The company wants to partner with Cabarrus County Schools. It would be a business arrangement of sorts. The school system would receive up to $550,000 in return for serving as a consultant. But the school system would still have to pay for Cabarrus County students who transfer to the virtual school, just like it does with other charter schools. Currently, that's about $6,500 per student in local and state funds. State law mandates this transfer of money because the public school system no longer has the cost of educating these kids. That's already a sore spot for many public school officials. But transferring money to a school that doesn't have to pay for a campus, desks or classrooms especially concerns school board member Cindy Fertenbaugh. "Why would they get the money?" she asks. "I believe the state needs to review this application from the standpoint that there may need to be separate defined funding streams. I, as a taxpayer and a member of the board of education, question if they should be eligible for the same amount of funding." The school would serve the entire state, so other public school systems would have to pay similar per-student costs to the virtual charter school. "I have a problem with taking state funding and using it to contract with a for-profit company," says Cabarrus County school board member Grace Mynatt. "I think it's a broader issue that needs a little more time for public discussion throughout the state, so that we can link private and public and see how we can we merge those in the best ways for our youngsters." A non-profit would actually contract with the for-profit K12 to run the school. The school's 300 page application says the goal is to enroll 2,750 students in its first year and up to 6,500 within 10 years. K12 officials declined WFAE's interview request. Instead, we were referred to Chris Withrow. He's listed as the co-founder of the virtual school and he's currently the chief technology officer for Warren County Schools northeast of Raleigh. Withrow declined to speak on tape. In an email, he said there's a need for an online charter school and notes that they exist in other states. In fact, K12 has online charter schools in 29 states, including South Carolina. But a recent New York Times report says some of those schools have big problems. The story cites high student-to-teacher ratios and teachers feeling pressure to lower standards. In Colorado state auditors couldn't verify several students were even taking the classes, although they were enrolled and the company received public money for them. K12 has dismissed that story as unfair and says on its web site that piece "advances an anti-parent choice policy agenda." Not really, says Gary Miron. He's an education professor at Western Michigan University and a co-author of a recent study on companies that run charter schools both traditional and virtual. He says many are cashing in. "There's an enormous margin of profit. You don't need the infrastructure or the cafeteria or the sports facilities." But he says they fall short on education. His report says only one-third of K12 virtual schools meet a federal benchmark called Adequate Yearly Progress. The national average for all public schools including charters is 52 percent. In its most recent earnings statement, K12 reported quarterly revenue of $193 million. That's a 43 percent increase over the same period a year earlier. That roughly corresponds with a similar increase in enrollment. "Their stocks go up not because they're high performing, but because they're making a lot of money," says Miron. That's not to say he's against virtual education. He calls it the wave of the future. But Miron thinks state laws need to be tweaked so that online charter schools don't get as much money as their brick-and-mortar counterparts. The Cabarrus County school board is expected to vote on whether to partner with the virtual academy at tonight's meeting in Concord. There are seven members on the board. Three of the four we spoke to voiced significant concerns.