Publisher's note: The author of this fine report, Dan Way, is an associate editor of the Carolina Journal, John Hood Publisher.
Students may have to wait another year for state to allow innovative option
RALEIGH As the traditional public school year in North Carolina is about to begin, Cabarrus County proponents of a statewide virtual charter school cling to longshot hopes that their unprecedented e-learning institution can open this year. For that to happen, the North Carolina Virtual Academy may have to prevail in a legal battle against the State Board of Education.
Meantime, nearly 50,000 North Carolina students will receive limited online instruction delivered directly by the state under a tightly regulated process that some national online education experts believe is antiquated and counter productive.
"North Carolina has been a little behind the curve in enabling full-time [virtual] schools," said Durham native and former Raleigh resident Susan Patrick. She is president and chief executive officer of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning in Vienna, Va. "There are just more opportunities that students in North Carolina deserve," Patrick said.
Her association provides advocacy, research, professional development, and networking to more than 3,800 members in the United States and globally. It represents public, private, and charter schools, state education agencies, research and corporate organizations, and content and technology providers.
In the past 10 years, the number of U.S. students enrolled in distance learning ballooned from about 20,000 to 1.8 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which tracks those statistics, Patrick said. About 250,000 students take all their classes online in the 30 states that offer that option. Supplemental online courses are offered in 40 states, and all 50 provide at least one online class.
North Carolina is "kind of unusual" in offering only one delivery option, Patrick said. Other states may have several full-time, statewide, online schools in addition to a state-sponsored virtual school, and allow individual districts to set up their own virtual schools of choice without jumping through state regulatory hoops.
The Cabarrus County Board of Education attempted to get the process jumpstarted in North Carolina by approving N.C. Learns as the locally constituted governing body of what would have been North Carolina's first virtual charter school, enrolling students across the state as early as kindergarten.
"We want to be a Top 10 district in North Carolina, and we're not afraid to get our feet wet and be a forerunner in education," said Lynn Shue, Cabarrus school board chairman.
"It's all about choice. People and parents and kids, everybody wants choice," Shue said, and online education would be a better fit for some students as the district strives to increase its graduation rate from 86.4 percent last year to 90 percent.
"I feel like our board did what we were supposed to do" under state general statutes declaring the local authority should grant preliminary approval, Shue said. Board members expected support from the State Board of Education.
But the state board rejected the application, saying it did not have necessary policies in place for a virtual charter school. An administrative law judge then approved the academy to begin enrolling students this fall, but Superior Court Judge Abraham Jones ruled against the school. N.C. Learns has appealed that decision.
"I'm disheartened by the Superior Court ruling because I think it is fundamentally inconsistent with the law, and to me that is bothersome," said state Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus, the attorney representing N.C. Learns. "My guess is we'll have it docketed in the Court of Appeals in 30 to 45 days."
Hartsell contends state statutes allow a local district to approve a charter, and he holds out the slim hope the school might still get approval.
"Best case is sometime in the next two weeks the State Board of Education would change course and authorize this system to commence operation," he said, acknowledging that scenario is unlikely.
Joel Medley, director of the North Carolina Office of Charter Schools, said the state has not changed position, and won't until it has the "right funding and right accountability pieces in place, and they're working toward that." He hopes the planning is completed before next year's application round.
"I don't think it's a fair excuse to say we don't know how to do this and block opportunity," Patrick said. "There are enough examples across the country that they can draw from on how to do that.
"The focus of the discussion around the country is on allowing multiple opportunities to exist and having the taxpayer funds follow the student for what the best educational programs for the student is," Patrick said. "Lots of states have figured this out." Minnesota and Utah even have a funding formula for dividing tax dollars among districts down to a student's individual course level.
"The more competition between online education providers, the better. Competition between private, public, and charter providers promises to lower the cost of virtual school courses and most importantly increase educational quality," said Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation.
"Families should weigh the pros and cons of online education providers and choose the one -- whether public, charter, or private -- that best meets the needs and interests of their children," Stoops said.
State education officials say North Carolina already has a robust e-learning opportunity through the Department of Public Instruction's N.C. Virtual Public School.
"We have seen a real growth over the last five years or six years, and we serve roughly just shy of 50,000 students per year," the majority of them high schoolers, said Tracy Weeks, interim executive director of N.C. Virtual Public School.
The school offers "well over 100 courses, from AP to honors, world languages such as Chinese, Russian and Arabic [to] credit recovery courses for students who have previously failed," Weeks said. There also are courses for exceptional children who need additional support, and for homeschool and private school students.
There are up to 800 certified, part-time, contracted teachers. Schools and students have varying degrees of flexibility on when and where to access online classes.
Weeks envisions continued growth in her program, but also foresees the advent of start-up virtual charters once the state adopts appropriate policies.
"There will be different models that serve different students in different ways. I don't see virtual charter schools as harming our organization or affecting our organization in any significant way," Weeks said.
Advocates "would be the first to say that online schools are not for every student, they're not for most students, but for some students they are the right fit and they are an important option in public education," said Jeff Kwitowski, vice president for public relations at K-12, Inc., in Herndon, Va.
Sometimes online courses are "the only option for academic success" for bullying victims, children with medical conditions, and special-needs students, Kwitowski said.
Single-parent students and students with jobs can take advantage of online instruction, he said. The courses are beneficial for accelerated learners and those falling behind who need more attention. And they provide teachers and courses otherwise not available, especially to financially challenged small and rural schools.
"The actual impact of online education will be modest -- perhaps 1 percent of the school-age population will enroll in an online course," Stoops said.
"Nevertheless, the education establishment knows that the long-term implications of digital learning do not work in their favor. Online education opens school choice opportunities to students from every part of the state, regardless of the availability of charter or private schools," Stoops said.
"While students in urban and suburban areas have multiple private and charter school options, children in many rural communities do not," he said. "If an online school is introduced statewide, families in many districts go from having no school options to complete choice without geographic boundaries," Stoops said.
Public school advocacy groups such as the North Carolina School Boards Association, North Carolina Association of School Administrators, and the North Carolina Association of Educators "rely on school boards and district personnel for funding and want to obtain as much of it as possible," he added. "In addition, the greater the centralization of public schools, the more influence special interest groups have over them."
Dan Way is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.