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NC School Board Questions Online Charter Applicants

Mike Burns
Flickr - bit.ly/14CCwbd

Two online charter schools could serve up to 3,000 students in North Carolina next year.  They would be the first schools of their kind in the state. The state school board asked those groups some tough questions this week. 

Online charter schools have been trying to open in North Carolina for a few years now, but plenty of questions about public funding, withdrawal rates, and the academic quality of these schools have kept that from happening.

School board member John Tate of Charlotte worries online charters might become schools of the privileged, since they require computer and internet access. 

“If I’m poor, how am I going to utilize your service?” he asked.

“So much of what we applied for was dictated to us,” replied Bryan Setser with North Carolina Connections Academy. “We advocated for a year that that was not the funding model that was successful in other states.”

In short, the school’s budget does not include money to lease computers or provide internet access to families who can’t afford them. The other group, North Carolina Virtual Academy, said that it can supply families with those things. 

Under state law, the online schools would receive about $5,000 per student from the state, nearly the same as their brick-and-mortar counterparts.  But they wouldn’t get as much from local districts. 

The two schools applying would be operated by for-profit companies that run online charters in other states, Connections Academy and K12 Inc. 

School board member Becky Taylor has concerns.

“How are you a quality school for our North Carolina families?” she asked.

Setser said Connections Academy has learned from successes and failures in other states. 

“We tried to take the best instructional approaches from those different states and then we change the accountability model in North Carolina.  We have a one-year contract with the EMO,” said Setser. 

That means if Connections Academy isn’t getting the job done, the school isn’t stuck with the company.

A special review committee gave the two charter schools the go ahead last month. The state board of education plans to vote on them in February. 

However, it’s unclear what happens if the board turns the schools down, since state law requires the school board to establish a pilot program for online charters starting in the fall.