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Virtual charters get critical looks

North Carolina is the newest land of opportunity for charter-school based businesses, now that state legislators have removed the previous 100-school cap on the experimental schools in the state.

That comes as, nationally, more attention is being paid to the business behind charter schools, including this excellent (and lengthy) piece the New York Times had on its front page today.

Virtual charter school companies, in which students communicate over the Internet with their teachers instead of sitting in classrooms, may be more about money than giving children decent educations, according to the article. The article profiled K12, Inc., the nation’s largest for-profit online charter school company that’s publicly traded (currently at $25 a share) as an enterprise paid for by taxpayers from several states.

(Note: This version of the post has been updated. An initial version of the post incorrectly said all seven lobbyists worked for McGuire Woods.)

North Carolina doesn’t have any K12 schools operating as public charter schools, but the company saw enough potential here to hire seven lobbyists this year, four of whom worked for one of the most well-connected lobbying firms in the state, McGuire Woods, according to documents filed with the N.C. Secretary of State’s Office. The lobbyists hired by K12 in North Carolina included former state lawmakers and former top state administration officials.  (Click here to see the list of the K12 lobbyists.)

The company is also  just one of several that have carved out profits from the charter school movement, the Times reports.

From today’s New York Times article:

A look at the company’s operations, based on interviews and a review of school finances and performance records, raises serious questions about whether K12 schools — and full-time online schools in general — benefit children or taxpayers, particularly as state education budgets are being slashed.

Instead, a portrait emerges of a company that tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards.

Current and former staff members of K12 Inc. schools say problems begin with intense recruitment efforts that fail to filter out students who are not suited for the program, which requires strong parental commitment and self-motivated students. Online schools typically are characterized by high rates of withdrawal.

Teachers have had to take on more and more students, relaxing rigor and achievement along the way, according to interviews. While teachers do not have the burden of a full day of classes, they field questions from families, monitor students’ progress and review and grade schoolwork. Complaints about low pay and high class loads — with some high school teachers managing more than 250 students — have prompted a unionization battle at Agora, which has offices in Wayne, Pa.

A look at a forthcoming study by researchers at Western Michigan University and the National Education Policy Center shows that only a third of K12’s schools achieved adequate yearly progress, the measurement mandated by federal No Child Left Behind legislation.

Some teachers at K12 schools said they felt pressured to pass students who did little work. Teachers have also questioned why some students who did no class work were allowed to remain on school rosters, potentially allowing the company to continue receiving public money for them. State auditors found that the K12-run Colorado Virtual Academy counted about 120 students for state reimbursement whose enrollment could not be verified or who did not meet Colorado residency requirements. Some had never logged in.

“What we’re talking about here is the financialization of public education,” said Alex Molnar, a research professor at the University Of Colorado Boulder School Of Education who is affiliated with the education policy center. “These folks are fundamentally trying to do to public education what the banks did with home mortgages.”

Could K12 open up shop in North Carolina? That remains to be seen. But shelling out enough money to pay for seven lobbyists is a sure sign they’d like to.

As many in North Carolina likely know, this year was a landmark year for the charter school movement in the state, with the GOP majority in the state legislature passing a law lifting the 100-school cap on charter schools. Initial legislatation gave larger shares of public education money to the charter system, but those measures were abandoned after opponents voiced fears that the state’s traditional public education system would end up on the losing end with needed resources flowing to more exclusive charter schools.

Today and tomorrow, state education officials will make recommendations about whether any of the 27 charter schools that recently applied for fast track status should open their doors to students next fall.

Among the applicants this round were former private Christian schools that are pledging they’ll be able to adapt to becoming a public school (Quality Education Academy of Durham) , and schools that would be managed by private, for-profit companies based out-of-state (Wisdom Academy in Raleigh, The Howard and Lillian Lee School in Chapel Hill)

The Challenge Foundation, an Oregon-based charter school organization whose ties to the conservative, Libertarian causes were the subject of an NC Policy Watch investigation last spring,  is behind the application of the Pinnacle Classical Adademy,  a charter school hoping to open up in Cleveland County. (Click here to read our investigation last spring on the Challenge Foundation).

All of the 27 fast-track applications can be viewed here, on the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s website.

It’s worth noting that these applicants are only for schools that want to open up next fall.

Dozens more will likely apply to the minimally-staffed office at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction in coming months, where three people are responsible for monitoring the finances, quality and motivations of the 100 existing schools as well as examining the influx of new applicants.

(Note: The initial version of this post misstated the number of K12 lobbyists working for McGuire Woods. Four of the seven K12 lobbyists work for the firm).

One Comment

  1. R

    December 13, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    A well-researched article that exposing the dangers of this sham was written a few weeks ago in the Nation: http://www.thenation.com/article/164651/how-online-learning-companies-bought-americas-schools