Plans for First New Jersey Virtual Charter School On Hold Indefinitely

Plans for New Jersey’s first state-wide online charter school have been put on hold, reports Jessica Calefati in The Star-Ledger. Although the decision is being hailed by political leaders, those who were involved in the creation of the New Jersey Virtual Academy Charter School and the parents who hoped to enroll their kids there are sounding a distinctly different note.

The decision taken last month by Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf to delay the opening of the two virtual schools in the pipeline was explained as being based on unanswered legal questions as well as on a lack of research showing that student outcomes didn’t suffer as a result of taking courses exclusively online. The denial of permission to operate came as a shock to Lorna Bryant, who brought to New Jersey her experience creating a virtual school in Arkansas, as she already had a commitment from more than 1,000 kids from around the state to start classes at the NJVA in the fall.

But lawmakers and charter school experts say New Jersey “dodged a bullet” by stopping the online schools from opening as planned, in part because of the proposed schools’ ties to K12 Inc., a for-profit company considered the nation’s largest provider of online education. Its practices have been under scrutiny in other states in recent months.

“New Jersey is one of only a few states that have tried to stop K12 Inc.,” said Luis Huerta, an education policy professor at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College. “Its success is somewhat unique.”

K12, Inc. – the country’s largest charter operator – has been subject to investigation for its business practices in a number of states over the past 12 months. The company was accused of using unlicensed teachers in online schools in Florida in violation of its contract with the state.

The company, however, was at the center of a class-action lawsuit brought last year by shareholders. The complaint alleged K12 Inc. misled investors about the school’s academic success and overcharged states for students who had dropped out of its virtual schools but were never removed from the rolls, according to the lawsuit, which was settled in March for $6.75 million.

Though K12 Inc. will not work with online-only charter schools in New Jersey, the company already provides a curriculum for a hybrid charter high school in Newark where students spend part of the day doing online coursework and part of the day working with teachers in a traditional classroom setting.

However, in the case of NJVA, K12 wouldn’t have been involved in the day-to-day operation of the school. The schools would have paid the company for its curriculum and a few other services, but the school would have been run by local teachers and administrators.

Although some of the Newark students love the new set-your-own-pace environment, student outcomes on the whole leave much to be desired. According to grades made public by the school, 70% of weekly assignments earned failing grades over the past month.