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Online Charter School Hopes to Escape from Limbo

State delays go-ahead amid questions about legality, viability of virtual classrooms for kids.

The nation’s largest online education company, K12 Inc., is once again registering kids and offering jobs to teachers for the debut of New Jersey’s first virtual charter school – all without knowing if the school will even open.

The New Jersey Virtual Academy Charter School was one of two applications given preliminary approval by the state Department of Education two years ago.

But it was forced into a delay last summer, when state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf wouldn’t grant the final charter amid ongoing questions – legal and otherwise – about the school’s merits and viability.

Almost a year later, answers to those questions remain hotly debated, including in the courts, and K12 Inc. is taking a wait-and-see approach to what Cerf will do this time while the company presses its case in the Legislature and elsewhere.

The deadline for a decision by the state is July 15, and a visit is set for next month from department staff. A department spokeswoman yesterday said that a decision has yet to be made about this or any other virtual school proposals.

“We’re still waiting for a decision,” said Lorna Bryant, interim director of the planned school. “In the meantime, we are doing everything we can to prepare for the visit in June.”

Bryant said the school, which would provide classes online for up to 850 students from kindergarten through 10th grade, has registered nearly 1,000 students and now is following up with further documentation for each of them.

It has also made job offers to about 25 teachers who would lead the classes, she said, and has begun to line up more than a dozen remote locations for the students to interact in person with teachers.

“We’re basically dotting our I’s and crossing our T’s,” she said.

K12’s model remains a controversial one, though, with the Legislature this winter and spring holding public hearings on the concept of virtual schooling in general, and various bills floated in the last year to try to address it, including two that called for a moratorium.

There has also been considerable discussion about even the very definition of virtual schooling, with two other charter schools opening last year – including one involving K12 Inc. – that are more like hybrid models that mix online with in-person schooling.

One additional virtual charter school has also applied to open in the latest application round -- the Mosdos Charter School in Lakewood proposes to eventually serve more than 5,000 students.

The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has filed a legal challenge against the online schools, saying they do not fall within the law.

Trying to stay ahead of the debates, Bryant and families from virtual schools elsewhere have testified at those public hearings, and the company has hired the state’s largest lobbying firm, Princeton Public Affairs Group, to press its case.

Next week, an organization called Public School Options, headed by former state education department official Norris Clark, will follow up with a public presentation in the Statehouse. Families and educators will talk about virtual schooling and demonstrate how it works in real time. All 120 legislators have been invited to the session.

Otherwise, Bryant said K12 was not doing much different this time in trying to convince the state to allow the school to open, besides providing additional details to address questions about lunch services and about special-needs students.

“Maybe we’ve been a lot more cautious with families and staff,” she said. “So many families were genuinely heartbroken and devastated last year (with the state’s decision for a delay), and we’ve told them that we will need to wait until July 15.”

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