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North Carolina Online Charter Schools Struggle in First Year, State Report Shows

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North Carolina's two virtual charter schools earned D grades from the state in their first year of operation, and had student withdrawal rates above the maximum allowed by state law.

Those are among some of the data points highlighted in a draft report detailing the progress of North Carolina's online charter school pilot, and a state board of education member is warning that the program needs to be closely monitored.

Both schools are operated by two for-profit companies that run virtual schools all over the country: K12 Inc. and Connections Education.

The state's report is part of an ongoing evaluation of the 4-year pilot program. The statute creating the program was tucked into the 2014 budget bill, despite reservations expressed by the state board of education.

In the three years leading up to the pilot program's creation, K12 Inc. spent nearly half a million dollars on lobbying in North Carolina. Collectively, K12 Inc. and Connections have spent more than $14 million lobbying lawmakers across the country, according to an extensive review done by Education Week of a decade's worth of publicly reported lobbying expenditures in over 20 states. (Click here to read the full investigation.)

Critics of K12 Inc. and Connections say that lobbying allows virtual charter operators to manipulate state regulations to their advantage. The companies counter that lobbying is necessary to have a seat at the table along with other key players in education, such as teachers' unions and school districts.

During a meeting last week to discuss the report, Becky Taylor, a member of North Carolina's board of education, warned that they needed to monitor the schools closely, according to WRAL, a local NBC affiliate station.

"The last thing we want is to be in the newspaper like some other states have been. We want to have good articles in the end ... We need to be on our toes," she said.

Indeed, more than a decade of news media reports, state investigations, and research have documented major issues in online charter schools across the country—which Education Week compiled into an interactive map.

However, the vast majority of parents with children enrolled in North Carolina's online charter schools said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the program, according to surveys administered by the state as part of the program's evaluation.

Parents make up a vocal and powerful base of support for online charter schools nationally.

Ohio's Largest Online Charter School Loses Appeal

In other cyber charter-related news, Ohio's largest online charter school recently lost an appeal to block the state from accessing its attendance records.

Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, or ECOT, doesn't want to provide details around how long students are logged into its system to the Ohio Department of Education. The Franklin County Court of Appeals ruled in the state's favor.

This all follows a state audit that found evidence that ECOT and seven other online charter schools may be inflating their attendance numbers. ECOT could end up repaying more than $60 million to the state of Ohio, and the other schools could collectively owe more than $20 million. 

An administrative appeal ECOT filed with the state's department of education is scheduled to be heard today, Dec. 5, according to the Associated Press. 

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