A charter school is publicly funded by state and local taxes, but is run by a private, non-profit board of directors. They have general autonomy from public administration, but they are free for students and offer open enrollment.
There are currently 148 charter schools in North Carolina, and two applicants are on their way to full approval — North Carolina Connections Academy, and North Carolina Virtual Academy. Both schools are subsidiaries of the for-profit companies Pearson PLC and K12, Inc., respectively.
If virtual charter schools do fit the needs of some students, such as those being homeschooled or highly competitive athletes, then UNC Assistant Director of Admissions Ashley Memory said they do not need to worry.
“We would not disadvantage a student if they took online classes,” Memory said. “We applaud options that let students have more flexibility with their coursework.”
UNC education professor Nick Cabot taught high school science for 15 years and was an early enthusiast of bringing computers to the classroom — but he said he remains skeptical of a fully virtual school.
“My personal perspective is that you learn science by doing science,” Cabot said. “You have to get hands-on, and it’s really hard to do hands-on virtually.”
He added that this process of learning is difficult for younger learners, especially, though adults are better able to handle virtual education.
“I think you can do that with students who have already learned how to learn,” he said.
Ellinwood said that while traditional charter schools do as well as their public counterparts, “virtual charter schools do not. They are producing alarmingly small student achievement gains where they are operating.”
A Stanford University study of all charter schools in Pennsylvania ranked students on whether they performed significantly better, worse or the same as their public school counterparts. The results were mixed in brick-and-mortar schools, but all eight virtual charter schools in Pennsylvania performed significantly worse in math and reading than their public school counterparts.
Ellinwood pointed out that a number of virtual charter schools in Colorado, Tennessee and Pennsylvania have ended contracts with K12, Inc. He also said the potential cost of the schools could take away limited state funds from other priorities.
Charter schools pull money from state taxes as well as from their local county. This amount increases as more students enter a school.
“We just don’t have money available to experiment on these unproven interventions,” Ellinwood said.