Misinformation on K12 Inc. and online public charter schools is circulating across NC and much of it appears to come from a left-wing political group, NC Policy Watch. They are hardly a neutral observer, however. The group’s legal arm is trying to block the opening of an approved online public charter school, North Carolina Virtual Academy.
Much of their argument seems to stem from a one-sided article in the New York Times that was published last year. A number of responses to that article can be read here, here, and here, but I would like to respond to a few of the specific claims that have been leaking into some mainstream media reports in NC:
- Academics: Critics are quick to point to academic comparisons based on the federal Adequate Yearly Progress AYP) benchmark – a measure that has been widely criticized and deemed unreliable by many, including the U.S. Secretary of Education. A much clearer picture on K12 can be seen in this 2012 Academic Performance Trends document which provides extensive data showing positive student academic growth, proficiency over time, and high parent satisfaction.
- Included in the performance document is a 2012 independent evaluation performed by the University of Arkansas on the K12-managed Arkansas Virtual Academy, the state’s only statewide online charter school. The evaluation showed positive academic results over 3 year period.
- Accountability: Charter schools are held to the same academic and fiscal accountability standards as all public schools. Online charter schools are nonprofit public schools, governed by independent, nonprofit school boards, authorized by state-approved entities (school districts, state boards, universities, etc.) Under North Carolina law, the State Board of Education is responsible for the oversight of all charter schools, regardless of whether the charter contract is issued by the State Board or a local school district. Of course, charter schools can have their charters revoked for failure, and, because charters are public schools of choice, parents act as the ultimate form of accountability.
- Teachers are state-certified and provide instruction and oversight of student learning, similar to online programs that have existed for years in North Carolina.
- Funding: In NC, funding to public charter schools follows the students – no different than if the student moved from one district to another to attend a different public school. It’s fair policy that gives parents greater freedom and control over their children’s education rather assigning a child to a school based on zip code.
- Average state funding for charter schools in North Carolina is about $6,700 and is based on state funding for where the school is located plus a smaller local funding allotment based on each charter student’s district of residence. Because Cabarrus County is among the lowest state funded school systems in the state, the proposed online charter school would also receive among the lowest funding per student for all public schools in the state.This is consistent with national data showing online charter schools receiving on average 30- 40 percent less in total funds than brick and mortar schools to educate a full-time student. Additionally, with fewer overhead costs, online schools typically spend about 80% on costs directly related to student instruction (teachers, curriculum, materials, computers, special ed., etc.).
- Just like other public schools and districts, an online charter school may choose to use products and services from private providers, but that does not make them “for profit” schools. Contrary to the absurd claim tossed around by some, online schools do not make a $2,000 per student “profit.”
- Colorado Audit: NC Policy Watch repeatedly claims that K12 was "audited" and had "overcharged" the state of Colorado for students. That is not accurate. Colorado Virtual Academy (COVA), an online public charter school, has used the curriculum and services provided by K12 since 2001. COVA is authorized by the Adams 12 Five Star School District located just outside Denver, CO. The Colorado Department of Education conducts routine student count audits and found that enrollment in the online school was lower than originally reported. So the district reconciled funds to the state through a reserve account designed for this purpose.
This is not uncommon in Colorado. In fact, in 2010 the state reported that over one-fourth of all school districts were overpaid by the state. This is largely because Colorado funds schools based on a single count date (Oct. 1) rather than by an average daily attendance or average daily membership formula (the latter, in our opinion, is better policy). It is not about online or traditional schools. K12 did not overcharge and it was not overpaid. Indeed, K12 is not paid for students who are ineligible for funding. Furthermore, K12 invoices the school for student-related expenses based on the number of students enrolled each month, rather than count date enrollment figure, which prevents any overpayments.
Last year, the NC Legislature passed a measure to increase the number of charter schools. States across the country are taking steps to provide more options for students and more choices for families as demand increases for new education opportunities. The law in North Carolina did not pre-determine what types of charters could apply through very narrow and prescriptive definitions. Charter school policy is designed to invite high quality models that are new, different, and innovative, and designed to meet the unique needs of a diverse student body. One size does not fit all, and one school model is not for every student.
Online and blended schools are creating personalized learning programs that are helping students who are not well suited to learn in a traditional, brick and mortar classroom. Again, not for everyone, but they are an ideal option for a small number of students. Even in states where online schools have existed for over a decade, only about 1% of the student population chooses to enroll. (In NC, the number would be less than 0.2%). But for parents who have sons and daughters with unique special needs, or have been victims of bullying, or who struggle continuously in the classroom, online schools are not just an interesting alternative, they are critical need.