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Advice on how to open up a virtual charter school

North Carolina or other states opening up online charter schools should put enrollment caps and other limits to ensure focus is kept on quality education and not profits, a board member of Colorado online charter school said recently.

“We’re not interested in being the biggest,” said Brian Bissell, the board chair of the Colorado Virtual Academy (COVA), an online school that recently moved to distance itself from the for-profit K12, Inc. that ran the school. “We want to deliver a high quality education.”

The Colorado Virtual Academy, one of the largest online-based schools run by K12, Inc , decided this month to take back the school management functions from the Wall Street-traded online education company that runs public charter schools around the nation.

Bissell, whose three children attend the K12-run school, spoke with N.C. Policy Watch about why the board decided to scale back its relationship with K12 and gave some advice for states that have yet to see the controversial school option open.

North Carolina doesn’t currently have any online, or virtual, full-time schools, which allow students from kindergarten through high school to take their entire caseload through online interactions with teachers through their home computers. The state-run North Carolina Virtual Public School allows students around the state to take individual classes online, either to catch up with their peers or take advanced classes not offered in their home counties.

K12, Inc. is a national leader in the online education industry, but has been criticized for methods that critics argue aggressively putsprofits over quality and doesn’t serve students well. K12, Inc. defends its business, saying that the online option works for many families and that the low academic standings are partly attributed to a population of students that come to K12 at academic disadvantages.

A proposal to open a K12, Inc.-run school in North Carolina as a public charter school is tied up in litigation, and the company has employed several lobbyists to push its case at the N.C. General Assembly.

The Colorado charter school had graduation rates in the teens, and lost the sponsorship of the school district that sponsored it because of academic and fiscal difficulties at the school in recent years. The school will continue to use K12, Inc. for curriculum and management in the coming school year, but will not use the company for management in 2014-15, Bissell said.

“We are walking away from their management services,” Bissell said. “We are not going to be the school that’s focused on quantity over quality.”

He said that K12 delivered a quality product when it came to the actual educational programs, but that its turnkey management approach wasn’t one that the COVA board was comfortable with.  The school also is operating on a one-year charter, and the break from K12, Inc. is a condition of the school’s continuing existence.

K12, Inc., will still be doing in business in the state. Another online-based charter school that plans on contracting with the company recently got approval from Colorado education officials to open up.

Bissell, who also said he owns K12, Inc. shares, said he had become concerned about the way COVA was operating in recent years and thought K12, Inc. was marketing the school too aggressively without having the capabilities to handle large numbers of students.

He said that if North Carolina is interested in opening a virtual charter school, leaders should insist on making sure the school has an enrollment cap, has a commitment to transparency and keeps education dollars inside the state.

Colorado Virtual Academy’s popularity meant that taxpayers education dollars were flowing out of the state to create profit for investors and for K12 to open up schools in other markets, he said.

“A lot of our dollars went to fuel K12’s national growth,” Bissell said.

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