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Lawsuit Against N.C. Virtual Charter School Gaining Traction

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By guest blogger Mike Bock

As the Burlington Times-News in North Carolina reported Wednesday, another North Carolina school board has joined a lawsuit against NC Learns Inc., the operator of a virtual charter school set to open in August.

In January, NC Learns was granted preliminary approval to be the governing board of the North Carolina Virtual Academy by the Cabarrus County school board. After the North Carolina Board of Education took no action on the charter proposal a few months later, the digital school is pursuing legal action that could force the state to open its doors—or, rather, browsers—to the online education community. A court hearing is expected to take place June 4. [CLARIFICATION: The original version of this post suggested the state board declined the proposal.]

NC Learns' charter school would have an administrative facility based in Cabarrus County. K12 Inc., the online education giant based in Herndon, Va., would operate the school and provide curriculum.

A member of the North Carolina Board of Education said concerns over funding and education quality prompted the state to hold off on final approval. As NC Policy Watch reported, "The state education board wants more information about the funding formulas and quality of virtual charter schools before [making] any decisions about any specific virtual charter schools," said Bill Harrison, the chairman of the N.C. State Board of Education.

"We're big fans of virtual education but we all think this isn't something we need to jump into without doing some serious work," Harrison said. "There are some concerns around accountability and quality assurance."

The state board's decision prompted NC Learns to file the suit in Cabarrus County administrative court. The judge, Beecher R. Gray, ruled in favor of NC Learns, claiming the state board lost jurisdiction over the application by holding off on its decision on it. The board appealed.

The Cabarrus County school system has been the target of recent criticism over its role in bringing NC Learns to the state. But according to a statement released by the Cabarrus County school board last week, NC Learns met the criteria needed for preliminary approval:

"...At this time, we continue to analyze the issues, particularly the impact of Judge Gray's decision to divest the State Board of Education of its jurisdiction to grant final approval. The Cabarrus County Board of Education has only granted preliminary approval consistent with the requirements of North Carolina General Statute 115C-238.29C(b), which provides that preliminary approval shall be given if the application meets the statutory requirements..."

It's another example of the complex policy environment surrounding virtual charter schools. In recent months, there have been divided debates over how to legislate online learning.

In North Carolina, Lynn Shue, chair of the Cabarrus County Board of Education, has adopted a "wait-and-see" approach to the legal battle, since a decision will not be reached until Monday. Shue said online learning would be a step in the right direction for North Carolina's education system, but there are still plenty of details to be worked out between now and the school's potential opening.

"Change don't come easy," Shue said in a phone interview Thursday.

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