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News Education Wake County court rules against virtual school

The North Carolina Virtual Academy, an online charter school operated by N.C. Learns that planned to enroll students from kindergarten through 10th grade beginning in August was back in court last Friday in Wake County.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Abraham Penn Jones ruled Friday that the online charter school could not begin enrolling students this fall because it did not follow proper procedure which requires all charter schools to go through the State Board of Education before being granted permission to operate. Judge Jones' ruling did not determine whether the virtual charter school, if opened could legally operate, but instead stated that because it bypassed the state board and only got approval to operate in Cabarrus County, the school could not go live this fall.

Initially, the for-profit Wall Street company (K12 Inc.) that runs N.C. Learns, was granted permission from the Cabarrus County Board of Education to open an online charter school in North Carolina, but 89 of the 115 school boards across the state, including Macon County, submitted a resolution to the state to petition the charter school's application be denied because it was seeking to receive taxpayer dollars that are currently being utilized by districts across the state.

On May 8, Judge Beecher Gray of the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings, ruled in favor of N.C. Learns, and gave the school a go-ahead to open, despite the N.C. State Board of Education’s disapproval of the company.

N.C. Learns would be the first virtual charter school in the state. The controversy with the online charter school lies in the fact that students choosing to leave the realms of state run public education to attend N.C Learns, will also take funding away from public education. If the charter school was permitted to open, it was expected to serve 2,750 students and could double its enrollment within seven years, according to the school's original application to the state. If the school met that projected enrollment the first year, it would equal about $18 million in state funding, which would otherwise be granted to local districts based on the Average Daily Membership or ADM.

Macon County Superintendent Dr. Jim Duncan stated that he supported Wake County Superior Court's ruling because public schools are in desperate need of the funding the charter school would take away. “I fully support the state providing school districts with the maximum amount of funding possible,” said Dr. Duncan. “I also support student choice in school selection and think that individual districts already offer these choices within the districts. I want to be careful of anything that takes such a substantial amount of funding away from public schools without a plan in place to make up for the shortfall.”

Dr. Duncan also noted that he supported the ruling because from his understanding on the matter, the charter school didn't follow proper procedure to secure the go-ahead needed to operate this fall. “From my understanding, the charter school by-passed the State Board of Education in order to be granted permission to operate,” said Dr. Duncan. “I agree with the National School Board Association in saying that the virtual school should have went through the State Board of Education. There are rules and procedures in place and those rules need to be followed within the system.”

The Cabarrus County school board backed the N.C. Learns proposal under an agreement that four percent of the public education dollars given to N.C. Learns be directed back to Cabarrus County. The preliminary approval in Cabarrus County in January marked the first time in more than a decade that a charter school went to a local school board for approval, bypassing the state board.

The company also hired a former state representative from Cabarrus County, Jeff Barnhart, to lobby the school board on behalf of the company. State Sen. Fletcher Hartsell of Cabarrus County was also hired as a lawyer to represent the non-profit.

Originally, final approval for the online charter school was left to the State Board of Education, but the state board failed to address the company's request and application before the March 15 deadline citing that previous statements made by the State Board's Chair William Harrison explaining that the state was waiting to make any decisions until more research was done on the program.

It is not known whether or not N.C. Learns will appeal the Superior Court's decision, but with school starting in a little more than a month, it appears that for at least this year, the online charter school will not be an option for students in Macon County.


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