An education panel in North Carolina has set ground rules that could allow thousands of students to take classes from home in the future through a charter school free to innovate with online-only education. The State Board of Education created the panel in the hope that it would be creative enough to offer ideas on the best rules and changes needed to state law to allow virtual charter schools. Recommendations for the task started by lawmakers are due before the General Assembly opens its session in the spring.
"This is a pretty new landscape," said Gillian Locke, a consultant who has studied online education for primary- and secondary-school students.
Locke's company, Chapel Hill-based education policy and management consulting firm Public Impact, studied online education for grades K-12 under a federal contract and shared results with the North Carolina panel. The firm found that 30 states operate fully online schools that educate 310,000 full-time students. Locke said that the majority were virtual charter schools that are allowed to operate under fewer rules than other public schools. Online-only schools that are managed by for-profit companies had the majority of students, too – more than half of the students.
According to Emery Dalesio of Charlotte News Observer, the company that sought to set up a North Carolina virtual charter school, Herndon, Va.-based K12 Inc., is the largest in the nation. Last week the State Court of Appeals ruled that the state school board was entitled to delay consideration of the virtual charter school sought by K12n Inc. while studying how best to manage them.
Parents often aren't clear on whether the online education their child is getting is high quality because virtual education is still new and unfamiliar. Additionally, Locke said that the difficulty in closing or otherwise holding accountable schools that don't deliver results is at least as difficult as closing a school building. Her words were echoed by the head of one of South Carolina's half-dozen virtual charter schools who said that it may be harder to close a school run by a for-profit company, which hire powerful lobbyists to ensure its interests and investments are protected.
Executive director of the Palmetto State E-Cademy Barbara Stoops said that one virtual school where students were showing poor results was at risk of closing last year when its state charter to operate was due for renewal.
"The lobbying effort made sure that that school got renewed," said Barbara, who said her school does not contract with a so-called education management organization, or EMO.
Because of health conditions or behavioral problems, being homeschooled by their parents or even on from extended stays outside the state or abroad, most states have fewer than 10,000 online-only students.