Plans of conservative pundit William Bennett, a former U.S. Education Secretary, to launch a tuition-free, internet-based charter school in the state of New York have run afoul of state law, New York officials said Dec. 16. The law in question reportedly rules out any charter school unless its students all are educated in one building.

An attorney for the entity governing New York’s charter schools said education officials must reject the application for the New York Virtual Charter School submitted by Bennett’s company, K12 Inc. Bennett’s firm has established similar schools in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Ohio, Idaho, Minnesota, California, and Arkansas.

The State University of New York (SUNY) Board of Trustees, which must approve charter schools, and staff members of SUNY’s Charter School Institute said a charter school such as the one Bennett’s company is proposing for New York could provide top-quality education for any child in the state.

They reportedly agreed such a charter school could be a preferred option for students living in isolated or dangerous neighborhoods, for bullied students, and even for students with unconventional schedules because they are Olympic hopefuls.

The tuition-free school would provide students with home computers, other resources, and teachers online or at the proposed facility in the Syracuse suburb of Fayetteville, a K12 Inc. spokesman said, adding that parental involvement and frequent student assessments are key to his company’s charter schools.

On Dec. 16, however, general counsel Paul O’Neill of SUNY’s Charter School Institute told a committee of trustees that the state’s charter law doesn’t allow for internet-based education delivered via home computers. A provision of the law requires the charter school to be in one building. Bennett’s Virtual Charter School, however, would allow students to be educated from their homes or in small clusters statewide.

“This is exactly the sort of option New York families need,” said SUNY Trustee Candace DeRussy. “It’s high time New York move into the 21st century … I believe it’s irresponsible of us to deny New York families this option.”

The League of Women Voters of New York State, however, said the charter school should be rejected. “It cannot meet the needs of certain at-risk populations; it will lead to re-segregation of education in this state; it cannot maintain the separation of church and state,” said Elsie Wager of the league.

“We’re going to follow the law here,” said SUNY Trustee Edward Cox. “The law is the law.”

Under state law, the SUNY board’s Charter Schools Committee must by Jan. 1 reject K12 Inc.’s application or indicate that it has merit for further review and likely approval. This requirement forced the issue onto the board’s agenda in mid-December.

The virtual schools differ from home schooling in that they are more structured, and the computer and other educational resources would be paid for by state school aid based on the per-pupil funding to the student’s home district.

The school is proposed to handle 1,500 students in kindergarten through seventh grade the first year and grow to 3,500 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

In October, Bennett opened the Arkansas Virtual School, saying the school will foster greater parental involvement and will feature “a self-paced, customized curriculum that benefits students of all abilities” and “a safe learning environment where character education can be an essential part of the academic program.”

A year ago, the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School opened in kindergarten through third grade, one of seven “cyber schools” in the state.

“We haven’t had any complaints from that school,” said Jeff McCloud, of the Pennsylvania Education Department.

The Pennsylvania school’s enrollment swelled from 400 students last year in kindergarten through second grade to 1,400 this year in kindergarten through fifth grade, said K12 Inc. spokesman Bryan Flood.

“We’re hopeful we’ll be able to offer this educational opportunity across New York,” Flood said.

Links:

SUNY Board of Trustees
http://www.suny.edu/Board_of_Trustees/board_of_trustees.html

K12 Inc.
http://www.k12.com