Hybrid Virtual Charters Raise the Ire of New Jersey Educators

John Mooney | July 26, 2012 | Education
With fully online schools out of contention, critics take up charters that mix virtual with conventional education

The Christie administration’s decision to postpone the opening of two virtual charter schools may have put off one challenge, but its decision to approve two other schools that rely heavily on online lessons could spark off another challenge.

A coalition led by the New Jersey Education Association sent a letter to acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf this week asking him to reconsider the approval of the Merit Preparatory Charter School and the Newark Preparatory Charter School, both in Newark.

The groups contended that the schools, which would bring students into a common space everyday and mix online learning with face-to-face teaching, are a significant departure from what is currently permitted under state statute.

Several of the same organizations had sent a similar letter to Cerf two weeks ago warning about a pair of schools’ all-online programs, allowing students as young as kindergarten to take a full course of classes from home. Cerf ultimately postponed the opening of those programs for a year, questioning whether they were ready to operate.

The groups used much of the same argument in the latest letter, saying these so-called “hybrid” programs were largely virtual programs in disguise.

“Indeed, the Merit Preparatory Charter School of Newark and Newark Prep appear to be online, virtual charter schools with the veneer of a traditional bricks-and-mortar charter school to mask their true nature,” said the letter.

Newark Prep would be operated by K12 Inc., the nation’s largest online education company and also the primary operator of both the postponed virtual schools.

Meanwhile, K12 yesterday released Newark Prep’s latest budget totaling $2.5 million for the first year. The education program itself will be $1.9 million, or roughly $13,860 for each of its 150 students, the company said. All the students would come from Newark.

The budget also includes a $550,000 fee to K12, but the company would waive the fee in the first year, according to Peter Stewart, the company’s vice president for school development.

Vince Giordano, the executive director of the teachers’ union, said yesterday that Newark Prep and Merit Prep, operated by a separate management organization, posed many of the same issues as the all-online schools.

The state law authorizing charter schools was enacted in 1995 before there was online schooling to the level that exists today, providing few if any controls or methods for monitoring their programs.

The letter highlighted that an amendment to the 1995 law specifically put some controls on the state from “any recommended expansion, modification, or termination of the program until the Legislature acts on that recommendation.”

Giordano said the group would allow some time for Cerf to consider their argument, but he said formal legal challenge could follow. The politics of the moment was not lost on him, either, with Cerf up for his long-awaited confirmation hearing today before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Charter schools in general and online schools in particular are likely to be a line of questioning.

“We’ll let him think about it, and hopefully we’ll get the same result as last time,” Giordano said, referring to the postponement of the virtual schools. “If not, we will definitely look at the legal aspects.”

Others signing the letter are the Educational Law Center in Newark, the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, the NAACP, and the Latino Institute.

The principals group is a new party to the challenge. Two other groups in the first letter appeared to drop off and were not involved in this letter: the state’s school boards association and the superintendents’ association.

“We need more time to look at the hybrid model and review how our policy would apply to it,” said Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the school boards group. “Based on that analysis, we will determine if and how we will address the matter with NJDOE.”

Efforts to contact Cerf were unsuccessful yesterday, and there was no further comment from his office.

Stewart, the K12 vice president, said he was surprised at the protests.

“For the virtual schools, it’s pretty standard to get the resistance, but I’ve never seen this for the [hybrids],” he said from K12’s Virginia headquarters. “They are a relatively new model for us, but still, students are showing up to school every day and working with teachers.”

Stewart yesterday provided the school’s first-year budget as presented to the state, detailing where the funds will come from and where they will be spent. Overall, it broke down similarly to a standard school, with costs going to instruction, administrative, and support services.

However, some numbers jumped out. The largest chunk was $1.2 million for teachers salaries and other instructional costs, or roughly 60 percent. But administrative costs represented close to 30 percent of the overall budget, higher than the norm. The bulk is in salaries ($190,000) and overall benefits ($238,000), and there was also $241,000 for professional or consultant services.

“That’s not unusual in the startup to have consultants get the programs going,” said Stewart.

In addition, close to $500,000 is budgeted for annual rent and facilities costs. The school plans to open on Broad Street in downtown Newark in space currently being renovated.

As for K12’s fee, Stewart said that too was standard for its operations, but it would continue to be waived until the school grows to its full size. “When it is large enough, it will pay it, but the way this is structured, we will be the last to be paid until they can afford it,” he said.