The statewide school board readied itself Wednesday to approve North Carolina's first online schools that are run by for-profit companies but depend heavily on parents to guide students sitting at home.
The State Board of Education is expected to vote Thursday to comply with a state law and allow online education giants K12 Inc. and Connections Education to open in August. State lawmakers last summer ordered the four-year experiment involving two virtual charter schools, which could operate under fewer rules than other public schools.
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New conditions reviewed Wednesday require the companies to provide computers and Internet access to students whose families can't afford them. Under debate is whether to exclude children who don't have a parent or other adult able to oversee their classwork. The companies said they couldn't afford to comply with a proposed rule that would have required them to provide an at-home learning coach if a parent is unable or incapable to help teach.
Nor should the companies be forced to provide staffing that allows all students to participate, said Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a school-choice advocate on the school board.
"The virtual charter program is not out there for everybody," he said. "The responsibility should fall on the parents to be that learning coach or to ensure" that another adult is available.
But others warned that students from families in which both parents work would be left out, even though public schools are required to educate every student.
"If the parents do not have anyone else who can step in ... that tells me that this goal is not accessible for my child which means then that we are excluding a segment of our student population," said Nash-Rocky Mount school board chairwoman Evelyn Bulluck, an advisory member of the state board. "We've got a lot of at-risk students whose parents cannot assume this responsibility and that's troubling to me."
The operators wanted to enroll more than 6,000 students after two years at a cost to taxpayers of $66 million a year. Their limit now will be 5,200 students.
The state school board also is adopting stricter oversight after several cases in which charter school operators have made questionable decisions about how taxpayer money was spent.
Virtual charter operators will have to report student enrollment after the first and fifth months of the academic year. Charter schools collect tax money for operations based mostly on the number of students enrolled. The new rules also ban employees of a company providing operating services from serving on the virtual charter school's governing board.
The schools are expected to draw students who are disabled, bullied or homeschooled; those who are committed to athletic or arts training involving travel; and some who are attracted for other reasons.
Critics contend the online schools represent a transfer of money away from traditional schools for uncertain gains, especially in the case of Herndon, Virginia-based K12. Tennessee's education commissioner said K12's virtual academy in that state will be closed after this academic year unless student test scores show dramatic gains. The company also has been under pressure in Colorado, Florida and New Mexico.
Connections is owned by London-based publishing and education company Pearson PLC, which bought the online charter school operator in 2011 for $400 million in cash after it produced three straight years of annual 30 percent revenue growth.
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio