An extreme but not surprising reaction to disruptive innovation

As Bobby Jindal learned last week, upending teacher tenure and emancipating thousands of students with private school vouchers will get you sued by adult interests hostile to this kind of disruption. But what if you’re a fledgling virtual charter school that plays by the rules established by your legislature? Should you have to turn to the courts to get launched? And should you expect the fury of most of the school districts in your state? How much disruption can one school cause?

This one school has challenged our suppositions of school boundaries and governance.

A lot, according to sixty of North Carolina’s 115 school districts, which have joined a lawsuit that aims to stop the North Carolina Virtual Academy from opening this fall. One school board member in Wake County, which has signed on to the fight, said districts are incensed that the virtual charter could enroll students from any county in the Tar Heel State. What’s worse, say the plaintiffs, the school will be managed by the for-profit K12 Inc.

In other words, this one school, which would be North Carolina’s first online charter academy, has challenged our suppositions of school boundaries and governance. That’s the sort of disruption that’s arguably more threatening to the status quo than school vouchers, for it’s a disruption that leads to a re-definition of “local control” and school choice.

In this case, the school board in Cabarrus County gave permission to a nonprofit group called NC Learns Inc. to base the online school in the county, knowing the academy could enroll students from anywhere in the state and knowing the nonprofit would turn over management of the school to K12. Final approval, however, had to come from the North Carolina Board of Education.

NC Learns submitted its application, and the blessing from Cabarrus County, to the state one day before a February 15 deadline, but the Board of Education refused to even consider it. Board chair William Harrison later told reporters, “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.”

NC Learns asked an administrative court to get the state to act on its application. It otherwise wouldn’t be able to open the school until fall 2013 at the earliest. It got its wish; a judge last month ruled that the state board’s inaction was “arbitrary, capricious, and without valid basis in law, rule, policy, process, or fact.” There was nothing wrong with the application, and NC Learns simply followed the law the legislature passed last year establishing virtual charter schools. But the state appealed anyway, and it got sixty school districts to back its fight.

It seems like an extreme reaction to one school board’s decision to grant approval to a charter school that hopes to enroll just 6,500 children online in grades K-12. Total public and charter school enrollment in North Carolina is 1.5 million. Perhaps the school boards are looking down the road—and beyond their borders—and are worried that the potential market of families interested in such a school might be much, much larger. Here’s hoping!

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