The State Board of Education approved Thursday two virtual charter school applicants for a four-year pilot program.
The General Assembly’s budget last session required the board to approve two virtual charter schools for the program. Only two applied: North Carolina Virtual Academy, which will be run by K12 Inc., and North Carolina Connections Academy, run by Connections Academy.
State Board of Education member Becky Taylor said Wednesday that the Board had consulted legal counsel and was told they were required by the General Assembly to approve two “qualified” applicants. Since they only had two applicants, the vote came down to whether board members consider them to be qualified or not.
Board member John Tate expressed serious misgivings about at least one of the applicants and said action should be deferred for 90 days to allow further applicants to apply.
“In light of the fact that personally I can’t support one of these … I have real issues with moving ahead.”
His motion was voted down, and ultimately both schools were approved.
One of the applicants, K12 Inc., has been the subject of much debate because of issues it’s had in other states.
Its largest school, Agora Cyber Charter in Pennsylvania, is planning to end its operational relationship with the company, and Tennessee is planning to close K12’s Tennessee Virtual Academy at the end of this school year because of poor student achievement and academic performance.
In Wednesday’s Board meeting, members discussed needed changes to the applicants’ charter, including conflict-of-interest policies, accessibility, and learning coaches.
Council Member John Tate expressed concern about members of the same family working together at a school.
“I would be opposed to having familial ties within the framework of the school,” he said.
Member Becky Taylor said charter schools have shown a history of such problems, and addressing that issue should be something the Board does going forward.
The charter language was amended to address these concerns, preventing immediate relatives of the virtual charter schools from being employed if they were related to a member of the board of directors, and prohibiting teachers and staff from being immediately related to the school’s chief administrator.
On the question of accessibility, Joel Medley, director in the office of charter schools at the Department of Public Instruction, said the charter language had been revised to ensure that all students would have the opportunity to attend the virtual charter schools.
“As a virtual charter school, parents should have the opportunity to attend, whether they can afford to do so or not,” he said.
The schools would have the responsibility of ensuring access to connectivity and equipment.
“If we find out that a parent has been denied access or a student has been denied access … we will have to look long and hard at that,” Medley said.
On Thursday, board members discussed the issue further and considered whether making the schools provide connectivity would mean the schools may have to actually run fiber optic cable to areas where none exists. As a result of the discussion, the charter was revised to say that the schools had to provide connectivity if connectivity was available.
Board members also discussed at length Wednesday language related to learning coaches and whose job it was to ensure virtual charter students had access to one.
The debate came down to a section of the proposed charter which said “the Nonprofit shall ensure that each student is assigned a learning coach. It is the responsibility of the Nonprofit to ensure that every student is provided a learning coach. In the event a parent is not available or capable of being a learning coach, the Nonprofit shall provide one in compliance with the statutory provisions.”
Board members were unsure whether that language meant it was up to the nonprofits overseeing the schools to make sure the children had a learning coach or whether it was actually their job to give them one.
Learning coaches are typically parents. Board Member Gregory Alcorn wondered which students wouldn’t have learning coaches already in place.
“Is that an orphan?,” he asked.
Medley responded that in some cases, a student might have a single parent who is at work and can’t serve as their learning coach. In that case, the nonprofit would have to work with the family to make sure another learning coach was in place.
Alcorn, however, didn’t like the idea of making the nonprofits responsible for something that might, in some cases, be out of their control.
“The responsibility of monitoring what’s going on on the other side of the school, to make that the school’s responsibility seems difficult to me,” he said.
Vice chairman A.L. Collins worried about the language in the provision and said that lawmakers would want the board to figure out whether learning coaches were the responsibility of the parents or the schools.
“That’s the issue that I think the people across the mall want us to struggle with,” he said.
Medley presented a revised draft of the charters to board members ahead of the meeting Thursday, which states that the nonprofits running the schools are responsible for making sure learning coaches are assigned to students.