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A Standoff Over a Virtual Charter in North Carolina

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The two sides fighting over the creation of a virtual charter school in North Carolina seem to agree on this much: It would eventually provide online services to thousands of students in communities across the state.

That's where the consensus ends. Plans to open the North Carolina Virtual Academy have drawn objections from North Carolina's state board of education and representatives of a majority of the state's districts. They claim that the statewide charter school has circumvented the process necessary to approve a school that will affect other school systems, and that the virtual charter will sap other districts' student enrollment and throw their budgets into chaos.

Backers of the school, which hopes to open in August, argue that the state board shirked its duties to act on the school's request, and that they have the right to forge ahead with their plans to offer personalized, online instruction. The virtual academy was given initial approval by leaders of an individual school district, the Cabarrus County Board of Education, a 29,000-student system located outside Charlotte. School officials say that securing that local blessing allows them to open, despite the school having not been approved by North Carolina's state board of education.

On one level, the standoff underscores one of the most fundamental questions over charter schools: Who should have the power to create them, and oversee them? It's a debate that has played out in Florida, Georgia, and other states recently. The North Carolina dispute is complicated by the nature of the academy, which would have the ability to reach students across jurisdictions technologically.

State board of education officials did not act on the school's request to open, saying they wanted more time to study online charter schools and create guidelines for them. But last month, a judge sided with the group seeking to open the academy, North Carolina Learns, Inc., ruling that the state board, "by its failure to act" upon the charter school's request, had "lost jurisdiction over final approval of the application and the terms and conditions of the charter."

The state board of education is appealing that decision. Its view is supported by many members of the North Carolina School Boards Association. At last count, 90 local school boards in the state, which has 115 school districts, had approved resolutions seeking to become parties to the state board's legal action, according to the association.

"This is a school that is going to affect 115 school districts across the state of North Carolina," said Leanne E. Winner, the director of governmental relations for the state school boards' organization, in an interview. "One school district should not be making that decision."

The school boards, in a court document, say that the charter school would enroll 2,750 students in its first year and have a final enrollment of 6,526. By the boards' calculation, the virtual charter school would receive an average of $6,743 per student in state and local funds, for a total of $18.6 million for the 2012-13 school year. "This revenue will come from state and local funds already budgeted for for the public schools," the school boards argue in a legal motion. Ultimately, the virtual school "will reap a windfall in a time of historically tight budgets for public education."

But Jeff Kwitowski, a spokesman for K12 Inc., a major, nationwide online provider, which would provide curriculum and academic services at the virtual academy, said the districts' fears are overblown. The school would serve only a fraction of the state's overall, 1.5-million student population. It's students would come from a variety of backgrounds, including advanced learners, struggling learners, children who want to work at a different place, and those who otherwise aren't happy in regular schools.

"There's a need for more public school options," Kwitowski told me. "It's not for every student, but for some kids, it's the right fit."

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