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Uncertainty about virtual charter schools

Most school officials hope courts will block online classes; others see no problem



Staff Writer


Lincoln County Board of Education members hope courts will act to block a new virtual charter school from competing with them for students and funding on what they believe will be an unfair basis, but the county’s state representative doesn’t see things the same way.

Following preliminary approval from the Cabarrus County Board of Education, North Carolina Learns, Inc. is set to establish a virtual charter school to serve children in all grades throughout North Carolina this fall – an issue that continues to have some school boards across the state up in arms. But other officials think it may not be such a bad thing.

Lincoln County Schools Superintendent Sherry Hoyle and the majority of the Lincoln County school board, with the exception of board member Clayton Mullis, have said they are in agreement that the creation of a virtual charter school will hurt other schools in the area, and are supporting intervention litigation between N.C. Learns, Inc. and the State Board of Education.

N.C. Rep. Jason Saine, R-Lincoln, however, disagrees that this new alternative way of educating will hurt the county as much as some are thinking.

According to Hoyle, virtual charter schools will be funded in the same manner “brick and mortar” schools, such as Lincoln Charter, are funded —under the per pupil formula. However, an online school doesn’t accrue some of the finances the physical campuses are responsible for, such as transportation, playground equipment, and cafeteria lunches.

The difference between the allotted amount given to the online school and the upkeep costs will make room for administrative bonuses, Hoyle fears.

Jeff Kwitowski, senior vice-president of public affairs for k-12, Inc., – the company who will be running the N.C. Virtual Academy – explained that although other charter schools may see more expenses in some areas, the online school will see high-cost expenditures as well.

“Online schools have increased costs for curriculum and technology,” Kwitowski said in response to allegations of personal gain opportunities. “Students aren’t using six, seven, or eight year-old books, and 80 percent of the funding we receive goes directly to student funding.”

Rep. Saine told the Times-News on Friday that he has some experience of his own with online education, and has taken various courses online, which he said made him open to new, “innovative” ways of educating county children. He said he is unsure why virtual charters are attracting so much attention.

“I really don’t think it’s even going to affect the county at all,” Saine said. “Such a small fraction of students are participating, maybe a handful at most. Educators should be looking for ways to educate everyone.”

Kwitowski estimates less than 0.2 percent of the student population in the state will participate in the online school, and N.C. Learns predicts about 2,750 students will take advantage of the program within the first year.  The group hopes to double that enrollment within seven years – a number that has Hoyle and her team concerned about the new educational outlet.

If county children start enrolling in the school, the district will be forced to transfer a share of the funds for each student who registers, Hoyle explained, which she worries will put an even greater financial strain on the area.

“Unable to know of or plan for the transfer of students to virtual charter schools, every school district will annually struggle with uncertainty,” Hoyle said. ” Primarily the number of public school students and previously unfunded students from their district that will be enrolling in virtual charters for the upcoming school year, and how much money will need to be reallocated from the district’s budget as a result.”

Confident in the schools present in the county, keeps Saine optimistic that this new resource will be an addition, rather than a hindrance to the public education system, and should be seen as such. The “quality of our product” is strong and isn’t going anywhere, he assures.

He argues that a virtual school will give children who are disabled and perhaps can’t attend school in the traditional sense, the opportunity to still have a quality education – which Kwitowski verified is a goal of the program.

“Parents appreciate having options; not all students are best served in traditional schools,” Kwitowski said.

An overreaction and a fear of competition are what have those who are opposed worried, Saine said, suggesting other officials should embrace a virtual charter in the same fashion they welcomed smart boards and other technologies into the area.

“Today’s kids are learning differently than they used to; things are changing,” Saine said. “Let’s look at this as an opportunity to explore and see what might work. All this is is a resistance of an area that doesn’t want to see change, which is human nature.”

Saine compared the N.C. learns issue to opposition school board members and educators had to the creation of charter schools in the 1990s, thinking it was the “end of the world,” and that charter schools would “suck up all of the money from public schools.”

Nonetheless, whether online charters are an innovative, new technology, or just a way to increase bonuses by hurting public and charter schools in the state, the county school board isn’t convinced N.C. Learns will have as small of an impact as Saine predicts.

In a prepared resolution the school board presented at their meeting earlier this month, it spelled out various additional reasons it was not in favor, including data that showed low performance and graduation rates for participants in virtual charter schools.

“We (Lincoln County) are innovators in North Carolina,” Saine said. “We’re a state that has been
innovative in education from our beginning; this is an opportunity to see an opportunity.  This is a community that offers educational choice and from an economic development standpoint, we are one of the best kept secrets in the state. “

As of earlier this month, an estimated 75 school districts have decided to attempt intervention in the creation of the state’s first virtual charter school.


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