More on virtual charter school companies in front of N.C. education committee tomorrow

Two for-profit companies vying to tap into public education funding streams and enroll thousands of North Carolina children into virtual charter schools will be in front of a state education committee tomorrow.

K12 logoA special committee designated by the State Board of Education to review virtual charter school applications will meet from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday on the seventh floor of the state Education Building, 301 N. Wilmington Street in Raleigh. Audio of the meeting, which is open to the public, will also be steamed here.

The full State Board of Education, responding to the state legislature’s creation of a pilot program for virtual charter schools, will meet in  January to decide if the online schools can enroll students – and receive public funding – for the 2015-16 school year.

Virtual charter schools teach students from kindergarten through high school through classes delivered through children’s home computers. Parents or guardians often serve as “learning coaches” to assist with lessons while teachers remotely monitor students’ attendance and performance.

North Carolina’s legislature opened the door for two virtual charter schools to open next August when it tucked a provision in this summer’s budget bill that created a four-year pilot program for two online-based charter schools to open by August 2015.

The country’s virtual education market happens to be dominated by two companies, K12, Inc. (NYSE:LRN) and Connections Academy, a subsidiary of Pearson, an educational publishing company also traded on Wall Street (NYSE: PSO). Both companies employed lobbyists in North Carolina last year.

North Carolina has seen a rapid increase in charter schools since state lawmakers lifted a cap in 2011 on the schools that are publicly funded, but run by private non-profit boards of directors. The virtual charter schools will also be governed by non-profit organizations, but the N.C. Virtual Academy and N.C. Connections Academy have indicated in their applications that it will pay private companies to run the schools.

North Carolina has its own online school – the N.C. Virtual Public School – but it offers individual and remedial classes to students around the state, and doesn’t offer a full course load of classes for students.

If approved, the N.C. Virtual Academy (which will be run by K12, Inc.) and N.C. Connections Academy (to be run by Connections Academy) each hope to enroll 1,500 students in the first year, for a total of 3,000 students.  [Click here to read the N.C. Virtual Academy application, and click here to review the N.C. Connections Academy application.]

At funding levels of approximately $9,000 per student, that could send up to $26 million in state, federal and local public education dollars to the two charter schools in the first year of operation, according to budget figures included in the schools’ applications.

K12, Inc., which runs virtual public schools in more than half of the nation’s states, has come under fierce criticism in recent years, with critics accusing the company of reaping profits from public money for investors while providing a substandard education to thousands of students enrolled in K12-run schools.

The NCAA no longer accepts transcripts from K12-run high schools for student-athletes hoping to play at the collegiate level, and the state of Tennessee may shut down its K12-run online school after three years of low student performance.

Supporters of K12 and other virtual charter schools say online-based schools offer needed options for families of students that struggle in traditional school settings, including those who have been bullied, suffer from major illnesses or learn at different speeds than their peers. K12 representatives have also said that it serves students that have failed in other schools as one explanation of why K12-run schools have performed poorly on standardized exams in other states.

To learn more about the virtual charter pilot program, click here to read a previous N.C. Policy Watch article.

Want to know what happens? Follow N.C. Policy Watch reporter Sarah Ovaska on Twitter (@SarahOvaska) for live coverage of Wednesday’s meeting.

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