The North Carolina State Board of Education quietly approved a policy last month that could allow the state’s two brand new virtual charter schools to avoid recording and reporting daily student attendance, and stipulates that the virtual schools would only lose their state funding for a student if he or she fails to show any “student activity,” —as defined by the for-profit charter operators—for at least ten consecutive days.
“The kids don’t physically show up [to school], so we needed a different way to account for how students are learning,” said State Board of Education chair Bill Cobey on Tuesday of the new policy. “The virtual charter schools still have to show that students are regularly attending school.”
Previously the online virtual charter schools, which are taking part in a pilot program authorized by the legislature last year and set to begin this fall, would have had to record daily student attendance using the state’s online reporting software—like traditional brick and mortar public schools—to comply with compulsory attendance laws.
Via conference calls before the start of school in late August, both the Charter School Advisory Board and the State Board of Education quickly approved a new policy  that doesn’t require the virtual schools to record and report daily student attendance to the Department of Public Instruction.
That change came at the behest of officials with the North Carolina Virtual Academy, the school backed by controversial for-profit online school operator K12, Inc., who complained to state officials that recording and reporting daily student attendance through the online reporting software that traditional schools use didn’t work for them, according to DPI’s interim director of the state’s charter school office Adam Levinson.
Though the new policy won’t require reporting of daily attendance, there is an expectation that the schools will require and monitor student participation in the online academic delivery model — but the policy also allows the virtual schools to define on their terms what they consider to be student participation, or “student activity” as it’s mentioned in the new policy document.
The change has resulted in confusion with regard to how the virtual charter schools will be held accountable for ensuring students are meeting statutory minimum requirements for learning—and that’s a troubling prospect to virtual charter schools expert Gary Miron, a Western Michigan University professor who says a very similar pilot program took place in his home state.
“We had a similar requirement here, virtual schools that were also backed by K12, Inc. and Pearson were participating in a pilot program and were only required to register contact with students once a week,” said Miron. “Two years in, and student performance on academic outcome measures were bad in every single area—but lawmakers still lifted the cap on how many students can participate, in spite of those negative outcomes.”
Earlier this year, North Carolina’s State Board of Education green lighted K12, Inc. to set up shop after years of trying to open a virtual charter school in the state.
The online school, called “N.C. Virtual Academy,” is one of two virtual charters (the other, N.C. Connections Academy, is backed by education behemoth Pearson) to participate in a four-year pilot program enacted by lawmakers last year.
Combined, the two virtual schools could receive up to $66 million a year in taxpayer funds by 2017, if enrollment reaches a combined 6,000 students by then, according to the Associated Press . Current enrollment in each of the schools is capped at 1,500 students.
Proponents of online education say it’s a way for students to access instructional delivery models in flexible and innovative ways that meet students’ needs. Around 30 percent of students registered for the N.C. Virtual Academy identify as homeschool students, according to recent media reports.
As State Board of Education members considered K12, Inc.’s pitch to operate in NC, several did express concern about K12’s business practices – often negatively portrayed in the media – and their students’ poor academic outcomes. But the board felt it had little choice but to approve the two virtual charter school applicants – the only applicants – because the law required the pilot to begin quickly, in fall 2015.
Cobey said he relied on the expertise of staff at the Department of Public Instruction when deciding to approve the new student attendance policy in late August, which he said passed without any dissension by State Board of Education members. One member of the Charter School Advisory Board, which is the body tasked with making recommendations on charter school policies to the SBE, did vote against the proposed rule, citing the fact that it was rushed.
But Cobey also made it clear that the state would expect compliance with the attendance policies that were laid out in the applications and charter agreements made by the national for-profit virtual charter school operators K12, Inc. and Pearson. That’s a sentiment that was echoed by interim director of the Office of Charter Schools, Adam Levinson.
“They each have methods of tracking student activity,” said Levinson of the state’s two virtual school operators. “The policy allows the virtual charter to define student activity and they will report that to DPI.”
Nowhere in N.C. Virtual Academy’s application or charter agreement can one find the term “student activity.” But the online school does lay out its expectations for student attendance in its application to the state.
Every school calendar day as defined by the state, the virtual school expects that either the student or a student’s learning coach (typically a supervising parent) must log onto the online platform that day, for no minimum amount of time. Three days of unexcused absences results in the virtual school reporting that student as a “truancy case” to the student’s local public school district.
Levinson explained that because students don’t physically appear before a teacher each day, instead logging onto their computers from home to access instructional materials and lessons, requiring the recording and reporting of daily student attendance doesn’t make sense for virtual online charter schools.
“What we’re acknowledging [with the new policy] is that there’s not an easy mapping of old concepts of seat time,” said Levinson.
Nonetheless, the state does have a clearly defined compulsory school attendance statute that includes a progressive warning system with checks in place after three, six and ten unexcused absences. After ten unexcused absences, students are in violation of the attendance law and parents could be charged with a misdemeanor, according to DPI’s school reporting section chief Andrew Cox.
How the new policy holds the virtual charter schools accountable to complying with this law is unclear.
“I would think the virtual schools would have a policy or at least need to adopt a policy on participation and would not think that [logging online for] 10 minutes every 9 days is acceptable,” said Cox.
Taking daily student attendance may seem like an easy requirement for a teacher to fulfill, but that wasn’t the case for a virtual school teacher who worked at a K12, Inc. school in Sonoma, California.
Former California Virtual Academy (CAVA) employee Jan Cox Golovich left her job as an online high school teacher nearly two years ago when she decided the students she was teaching were being cheated out of an education.
Golovich recounted troubling experiences working for CAVA that closely align with findings of a report released  earlier this year by a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
That report, whose author analyzed publicly available data and interviewed teachers and staff at the K12 California virtual school, indicates that CAVA failed in many ways to adequately serve its students.
Poor oversight when it comes to ensuring accurate student attendance, dramatically lower test scores than their traditional public school counterparts and difficulty accessing technology were only some of problems the report found with CAVA and were echoed by Golovich, who was not involved in the compilation of the study.
In particular, Golovich complained about the pressure she experienced from K12, Inc. officials to carefully log student attendance reports that she had to hand over to the California education department in order to receive state funds.
“We weren’t really able to tell how long students were actually logged into the system,” said Golovich in an interview with N.C. Policy Watch earlier this year. Parents that served as students’ learning coaches simply logged attendance for their kids, and Golovich was forced to simply trust their word that students were online and engaged for the amount of time necessary to succeed in their coursework.
But students’ performance in Golovich’s classes was poor.
“The students were not doing well in my classes, and I was really concerned,” said Golovich. When teachers were gathered at a training offered by K12, Inc. administrators one day, some asked how to see in the online system just how long students were logging in and working.
“One of the tech guys at K12 told us how to see it [how long students were logged in] – and we realized that kids were only logging on for maybe five minutes a day, and yet we were signing off on these attendance reports,” said Golovich.
In traditional brick and mortar public schools in North Carolina, students must attend school for at least half of the day in order to be counted present, according to DPI.
Once the California teachers became aware of how to tell how long students were logged into the online learning systems, CAVA switched course and required teachers to more aggressively track student attendance throughout the day, forcing teachers to check in with each parent or learning coach regularly to get a better sense of how long students were engaged throughout the school day.
But that request would entail large amounts of work chasing down every parent on a weekly basis because Golovich had hundreds of students assigned to her. So she simply began to keep more accurate student attendance on the basis of how long students were logged in.
“My attendance rates went down between 25 and 30 percent,” said Golovich. Other teachers, she said, were afraid to keep honest records because of fear of what CAVA administrators might do. “But I just couldn’t risk my teaching credential by effectively lying,” she said.
Golovich eventually decided to resign her position.
Elsewhere around the country, K12, Inc.’s other virtual schools have experienced the following:
Poor academic outcomes. In every state where K12, Inc. operated virtual schools and public information was readily available (AZ, CO, GA, NV, OH, PA, SC, TX, WA), virtual students’ math and reading standardized test scores were significantly behind the state average, according to the report.
Low graduation rates. K12, Inc.-operated virtual schools’ graduation rates were as much as 50 percentage points below the state average.
High student turnover. Also known as “churn,” twenty-three of K12’s students drop out within the first year, and 67 percent leave within two years.
Last year, Tennessee shut down their K12, Inc.-backed virtual charter school for extremely low academic performance. 
And the NCAA also announced last year it  will no longer accept coursework in its initial eligibility certification process from 24 virtual schools that are affiliated with K12, Inc. – including all eleven CAVA schools.
No matter the attendance policy required by the state, SBE chair Bill Cobey admits that students can only be successful with the online virtual school model if students are highly motivated and their parents, or “learning coaches,” are able to provide intensive support.
Cobey said his granddaughter is an accomplished gymnast who participated in an online Connections Academy school for two years while she competed.
“It was tough,” said Cobey, who said his daughter constantly stayed on top of his granddaughter’s online schooling efforts. “You have to sign on all the time because you have to keep up with the work. Anybody who thinks this is easy doesn’t know what they are talking about, and that’s the reason why you get a fairly high drop out rate, because people sign up and think it’s easy or think that you can game the system—but my granddaughter’s experience is that no, you can’t.”
But the new student attendance policy coupled with the fact that the virtual charter schools’ contracts don’t require students to be actively working online for a minimum amount of time would suggest that there is great potential for “gaming the system” by those who want to invest minimal effort in order to progress through the state’s public educational system.
“They’re gonna have to be online every day if they want to do well,” said Cobey.
Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or [email protected] 
Image: Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) Adapted from Marisa Ravn photo.