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Tough Questions Need Answers Before NC Gives OK To Online Charter Schools


Two virtual charter schools run by for-profit companies are trying to open schools in North Carolina. In the past, the state board of education has refused to consider these schools. But this year the board appointed a group to figure out how to evaluate virtual charters. The group heard from those two companies this week. They say it’s not fair to compare them to brick-and-mortar schools. 

The companies K12 and Connections Education want to serve up to 6,000 students in North Carolina. One of the most contentious issues concerning these schools is academic quality. Many virtual charter students don’t perform to state standards.   

Mary Gifford with K12 told the group that shouldn’t reflect on the quality of education the schools offer.   

“This isn’t for everybody. There’s a finite universe of people who can be successful in this. It is truly a lifestyle choice,” said Gifford.   

In fact, she says only 40 percent of K12’s high school students are successful. Those are the ones who have the discipline and drive to work fairly independently. But Gifford says virtual charters attract a lot of kids who have a hard time staying on task even with the daily face-to-face support of a teacher. 

“This isn’t like the brick-and-mortar school where even if a student sits in the back row of Algebra I and sleeps every morning, as a teacher, I can walk by and poke the kid, wake the kid up, and the kid’s going to get something.  In the virtual setting I can’t poke them,” explained Gifford. 

She suggests allowing virtual charters to remove students who don’t meet attendance requirements. That way she says kids who may be blowing off their classes because they need that extra poke don’t languish in the online system. 

But then how do you judge attendance, since a student could always just log in and leave the room? 

Barbara Stoops is the director of a virtual charter in South Carolina. She’s also part of the group figuring out how to evaluate these schools in North Carolina. She says one mistake South Carolina made was not coming up with a specific definition for attendance for online schools. 

“As a result, there was one school with 1,500 students who considered attendance by a very loose rule. In one year, with 1,500 students they had a total of four absences that they were reporting to the state in PowerSchool.  That really makes it difficult for a school that tries to track attendance very carefully,” Stoops told the group.    

But be careful says, the director of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers Greg Richmond.  That’s the association for groups that grant charters. He says attendance policies may be appropriate, but if you remove a student mid-course that presents a payment issue.

“If you’re paying the virtual school upfront for enrolling a kid, regardless of whether the child succeeds, then I worry about rules around removing kids from the program based on how many minutes they’re online,” says Richmond.

He says it’s better to pay virtual charters based on the number of students who complete courses.   

“That’s why, I think, if you set up that the school gets paid only if the kid succeeds, well, now that provider has an incentive for success,” says Richmond. 

The amount virtual charters receive for students is another big question the state must tackle. Brick-and-mortar charter schools get the money for each student that otherwise would have gone to that student’s local school district. On average, that’s about $8,500 in North Carolina. 

Both K12 and Connections Education say it makes sense to pay them the same because, they say, they have comparable expenses as brick-and-mortar charters.    

The virtual charter study group includes district superintendents, charter school educators, and advocates for charter and home schools. They’ll present their recommendations on how to evaluate online charters to the state board of education in March and then pass them on to state lawmakers.