NC school board panel sets up vote on companies behind bids to offer online charter education



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RALEIGH, North Carolina — North Carolina's statewide school board could decide next month whether it's time to launch the state's first online charter schools run by companies and depending heavily on parents or other adults to guide students.

A committee appointed by the State Board of Education on Wednesday cleared applications by a pair of proposed charter schools that will hire online education giants K12 Inc. and Connections Education. State lawmakers last summer ordered a test involving two online charter schools, which could operate under fewer rules than other public schools.

The online schools could enroll more than 6,000 students and cost taxpayers $66 million a year by 2017.

The schools are expected to draw students who are disabled, been bullied, committed to athletic or arts training that leads to travel, or for other reasons.

"Things become a lot easier when you don't have to put a specific person in a place to get things done," said Russell Jones, a Durham technology executive on the nonprofit board trying to start the school Connections will operate.

The Connections-run school expects half or more of its students would come from traditional schools, about 20 percent who were previously homeschooled, and the rest from private schools or newly arrived from another state, its application said.

While high school students will take about 70 percent of their class work online, the youngest children from kindergarten through second grade will spend about half their learning time in front of a screen and the rest with books and other materials guided by a parent or other adult, K12 vice president Mary Gifford said. Advocates described parents, older siblings, coaches or other adults as stand-ins for teachers in the online learning process.

"This is indeed a lifestyle choice. This is not for everyone," Gifford said.

Connections is owned by London-based publishing and education company Pearson PLC, which bought the online charter school operator in 2011 for $400 million in cash because of annual 30 percent revenue growth as virtual public schools expand in the U.S.

Herndon, Virginia-based K12 Inc. saw income increase by 4 percent to $237 million in the three months ending in September, with about 60 percent of that coming from its public school programs in 34 states and Washington, D.C.

Critics like Mark Jewell contend the schools represent a transfer of money away from traditional schools for uncertain gains, especially in the case of K12. Tennessee's education commissioner said K12's virtual academy in that state will be closed after this academic year unless student test scores show dramatic gains. The company also has been under pressure in Colorado, Florida and New Mexico.

"The track record is very poor for these virtual K12 schools," said Jewell, vice president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, which represents public school teachers.

No state has terminated contracts or revoked charters of schools that the company has been involved with, but some were not renewed, Gifford said.


Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio

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