The Charlotte Observer
June 29, 2012
Online School Can't Open in August
RALEIGH - A Wake County judge ruled Friday that a controversial
charter school that planned to offer only online classes cannot
open in August. The decision could delay the launch of any similar
programs for at least a couple of years.
Superior Court Judge Abe Jones' ruling puts a major obstacle
in the path of N.C. Learns, a nonprofit organization that had
planned to enroll more than 1,700 students in the state's first
virtual charter in the coming school year.
At issue was whether the N.C. Virtual Academy, the school proposed
by N.C. Learns, needed approval from the State Board of Education.
N.C. Learns used an unusual process through which it won approval
from the school board in Cabarrus County, near Charlotte, to
set up an online charter school that would have drawn students
from across the state.
The State Board of Education did not vote on the project, opting
to pass on a proposal that raises vexing issues about online
learning, funding formulas and quality control for students
being educated with public dollars outside brick-and-mortar
classrooms. A state "E-Learning Commission" has been
tasked with considering new policies, but it might be 2014 before
new online charter school proposals could be thoroughly vetted
by the state board, members said.
"The concern here is we're not ready to approve an online
charter school at this time," said Bill Harrison, chairman
of the state school board.
Under the N.C. Virtual Academy proposal, N.C. Learns had planned
to get K12, a for-profit company that has become one of the
biggest players in the online education business, to run the
Advocates said the proposal would have given school-choice advocates
Chris Withrow, chairman of N.C. Learns, said he is disappointed
and frustrated by the state board's decision to forgo consideration
of the Virtual Academy, particularly in a year after state lawmakers
made it possible to add more charter schools in this state.
"It is a sad day for parents and children in North Carolina
who need this public school option," Withrow said in a
prepared statement. "We are particularly disappointed and
frustrated that the State Board of Education ignored our charter
school application and never gave us a fair hearing.
"The Legislature passed a law lifting the charter school
cap with the intent to provide more public school options to
children throughout North Carolina," the statement said.
"By not acting on our application and by unilaterally declaring
a moratorium on certain types of charter schools, the State
Board has undercut the charter school law and will of the Legislature."
Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, a Republican from Cabarrus County and
the attorney representing the online program, said N.C. Learns
has not decided whether to appeal Jones' ruling.
But he was insistent that Jones' order is not a death knell
for online charter schools in North Carolina. "Absolutely
not," Hartsell said.
Parents sought option
The academy, as proposed, would have offered online courses
for students from kindergarten through high school. The program
would have been based in Cabarrus County, but hoped to pull
in as many as 2,750 students from across the state the first
Lauren Bumgardner, 21, a Raleigh resident who has a 3-year-old
daughter, was at the Wake County Superior Court hearing, hoping
for a different result.
Bumgardner, who works in the real estate business, said she
is not certain that she wants to send her daughter to Wake County
public schools when the time comes and was interested in an
"I don't particularly favor public schools," Bumgardner
said, "because a lot of children get lost in the system."
N.C. Learns won approval from the Cabarrus County school board
in February to base the online charter school in that district.
But it could have enrolled students from across the state, siphoning
millions of dollars from traditional public schools in districts
outside Cabarrus County.
Under the state's current educational funding formula, local
school districts must give thousands of dollars to charters
educating children who otherwise would have been enrolled in
public schools. Because an online charter school might have
appeal to parents who want to educate their children at home,
the proposal also could have meant that the local districts
would have had to start paying for home-schooled children.
"As a state, we have responsibility for all our children,"
Harrison said. "The funding piece is a function of the
General Assembly, and they don't seem to want to provide that."
A gain for Cabarrus
Cabarrus County, one of the lowest-funded school systems, would
have gained 4 percent of the public money pulled in by the online
The concept pitted school choice advocates against the state's
education establishment, tossing up many issues that had not
been thoroughly vetted by the state school board.
Jones said in his order, which he read in open court, that the
state board is in the best position, legally and otherwise,
to consider the proposal.
After state law was changed to open the state to more charter
schools, the state board developed a "fast-track"
process for applicants who wanted to open a new charter by fall
2012. In doing so, Jones' order states, the state board "made
it very clear that applicants would be subjected to a very strict,
rigorous process." Applicants who could not meet such "rigorous,
ready-to-start standards" could apply for a slower review
The fast-track process, it turned out, was only for traditional
charter schools, and those seeking to begin the online program
did not seek guidance from the Office of Charter Schools, Jones
The Cabarrus County school board, which approved the proposal
5-2 in February, "is not experienced in, nor equipped as
the State Board of Education, with the staff and know-how to
review, evaluate, and approve the application of a charter school
designed to serve a statewide clientele, nor is it authorized
to give final approval for such operation," Jones said
in his order.
Cabarrus County was the only school district that supported
the idea. Eighty-nine of North Carolina's 115 public school
districts joined under the umbrella of the N.C. School Boards
Association to bolster the state Board of Education's legal
challenge of the online charter.