In the latest controversy over virtual schooling, the North Carolina Board of Education left the fate of a proposed online charter school hanging Feb. 7 when it agreed to allow three other charter schools to open in the fall instead.
Rather than deny the contested proposal for New Connections Academy outright, board members skirted the issue by approving the three other charter applications first, bringing the state to the 100-charter limit set by the General Assembly.
The board’s move left New Connections’ application available for consideration in case one of the state’s 100 charter schools decides before March 15 to close or not open at all. But board Chairman Phil Kirk told reporters that was unlikely to happen.
New Connections, developed by a division of Sylvan Learning Systems, would exist entirely online, with no classrooms. Students from anywhere in the state would be able to learn and interact with teachers through the internet. The proposed academy would serve 340 students in grades six through 10.
The school’s charter proposal has divided board members and set off a maelstrom of controversy. Critics say the school would erode local school funding by attracting children now in the public schools who want to be educated at home.
The proposed school’s critics reportedly include Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board Chairman Arthur Griffin and Superintendent Eric Smith, who last year was named by eSchool News as one of 10 Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award winners.
According to the Charlotte Observer, Griffin and Smith sent a letter in January urging state board leaders to reject New Connections’ application. “As home school and private school students enroll in this virtual school, scarce public dollars will be allocated away from the traditional public schools,” the two reportedly wrote.
Attempts by eSchool News to reach Smith for comment were unsuccessful at press time.
State Treasurer Richard Moore, a board member, said the board didn’t want to discourage charter applications by rejecting New Connections. Charter schools receive public money but are independently run, operating under fewer regulations than traditional public schools.
Moore said he and the board thought a virtual school was a good idea, but they were concerned that New Connections’ supporters applied for a charter to get state funding.
“A bunch of smart people looked at this and said, ‘What’s the one place we can find money? Charter schools,'” Moore said. “I don’t think a virtual school should ever take the place of bricks and mortar.”
New Connections would not be the state’s first online school. The Web Academy, a Cumberland County-based school whose students take classes online, has grown exponentially since it got off the ground in fall 1997.
First used by six Cumberland students who needed to make up credits in a senior English course, the Web Academy now serves more than 500 students in homes and classrooms across the state, with 85 courses from culinary arts to physics.
“I learn more this way,” said Jessica Leonard, a 17-year-old high school senior who joined the academy in January, taking classes on her parents’ living room computer. “I can read the material myself and get the work done. I don’t have to worry about disruptions in class.”
Web Academy is using the internet to reach students with a variety of needs that cannot always be addressed in traditional schools.
Rural students have turned to Web Academy for classes not available at small schools with limited course offerings. The computer-based approach also is catching on as a tool for students who struggle in the conventional classroom or are unable to attend for medical, disciplinary, or other reasons.
“Students who for whatever reasons are not successful in traditional classroom do well in this environment,” said Linda DeGrand, distance-learning specialist with the state Department of Public Instruction. “There are students who don’t feel comfortable with raising their hands in class. The computer is nonjudgmental.”
The big difference between Web Academy and the proposed virtual charter school is funding. Tuition to Web Academy is free to Cumberland students, but the school system charges $400 per course for students outside the county.
Funding is also the key issue in a dispute between cyber charter schools and their bricks-and-mortar counterparts in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania School Boards Association has filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of that state’s seven cyber charter schools, and many Pennsylvania districts are refusing to pay the tuition for students who are enrolled in them from their jurisdictions.
Mickey Revenaugh, a Sylvan vice president, said she believes the Feb. 7 decision means the board is very interested in the virtual charter school but still has unanswered questions.
“We absolutely anticipate being back,” she said. “We heard … that [board members are] very interested in the concept of virtual education. Clearly, they weren’t ready to have a virtual charter school.”
North Carolina State Board of Education