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Expect Clash Over Virtual School To Intensify At NC BOE

What could be North Carolina's first online charter school has passed its first round of approval. Now it's up to the state board of education to give the final okay. From there, you can count on it getting a lot of attention in Raleigh both from public school officials and the team of lobbyists employed by the for-profit company that would run the school. The company K12, Inc. has six lobbyists in North Carolina. That's nothing unusual for the company. It has lobbyists in nearly all of the 29 states where it has online charter schools. "Most education organizations and groups have representation in state capitals and we do too," says Jeff Kwitowski, a spokesman for the company K12's North Carolina team includes Jeff Barnhart, a former state representative for Cabarrus County, where the North Carolina Virtual Academy would be based. K12 probably needs those lobbyists. That's because the North Carolina School Boards Association and others are making the case against online charters. "The way our funding formulas work in North Carolina for both the traditional public schools and charter schools is that it's based upon estimated student counts and home school students aren't included in those counts," says Leanne Winner, NCSBA's chief lobbyist and director of government relations. In other words, no state money is spent on students who are homeschooled. But Winner expects the virtual academy to attract a lot of home school students. If that occured, the state would then have to pick up the cost of educating students who are receiving their education at home but are no longer considered homeschooled. In Winner's view, it's a case of having your cake and eating it too. "This is almost a perfect match for those home school situations where the parent is basically getting help for them in teaching their children at home," says Winner. It was partly this concern that pushed the state board of education to reject an application for a virtual charter back in 2002. In rejecting the proposal, then board chairman Phil Kirk wrote online charters were a way to subsidize home schooling. K12 spokesman Kwitowski says that's the wrong way to see it. He says home school students are in the minority at most of the charters the company manages. "In some states especially when the schools have been around for a long time, it can be about 15 to 25 percent. But the majority of students come from traditional schools. Students who have been just not succeeding in traditional classroom settings, it's a good option for them," says Kwitowski. The Virtual Academy expects to have 2,800 students it's first year, and eventually have a statewide enrollment of 6,500. The state and local per-student allotment it would qualify for ranges from about $6,000 to $9,000 depending on the district. Say, a quarter of those kids in the first year of the virtual academy comes from home schools. That would mean at the least districts would have to pay a combined $4 million for homeschoolers they weren't paying before. Of course, parents of home-schooled kids point out that they also pay taxes, but currently get no education benefit. So why shouldn't their kids get something in return for the taxes they pay? If the virtual academy reaches its goal of 6,500 students, the school would get more than $40 million a year in tax dollars, money that would end up with the for-profit company, K12. Leanne Winner of the North Carolina School Boards Association thinks online charters should get less money than traditional charters. They don't have expenses like maintaining a campus, she says, and they don't need as many teachers. True, but Kwitowski says online charters have additional technology expenses. These are arguments that will play out before the state school board. It's asked the state's E-Learning Commission for guidance. The virtual charter school already has an advocate in State Senator Fletcher Hartsell of Cabarrus County. Hartsell helped draft the charter school law passed in 1996. Now, he's also the attorney for the North Carolina Virtual Academy.