School districts in North Carolina are feeling the squeeze. They continue to lose students and money to charter schools and then there are all the home school students out there. At least a couple of local school districts are finding ways to lure those students back into the public school fold and get some money for them too.
This sounds like a fairly typical thing for a CEO to say:
“The more that we feel like we can provide choice the more market share we retain.”
But that’s Dawn Creason, a spokeswoman for Iredell-Statesville Schools. When you look at the education landscape there, you can understand the reason for that language. Iredell County has four charter schools. A big one just opened there this year. The district estimates another 1,900 kids in the county are home-schooled.
“Of course, market share means funding for us and funding means teachers. It means personnel. It means resources for kids. It means technology. It means buildings,” says Creason.
This year the district began allowing home school students to take online courses the state offers. They have to take at least two courses per semester to qualify. That way the district can receive full state and local funding for them. That’s about $7,500 per student. Cabarrus County Schools offers a similar program for home school students called HomeReach.
Paul English, head of the Cabarrus County Home School Association, says these online classes are especially attractive to students who want to take Advanced Placement courses and some language classes.
“For homeschoolers to use that it would cost in the hundreds and hundreds of dollars, but going through the school system we would access the money we’re already paying in taxes,” says English.
Home school students take the courses at home, but still have the option to talk to teachers and counselors and use school lab space. Only about 45 home school students have signed up for the online courses in Cabarrus and Iredell-Statesville Schools. So at this point, it’s not a big source of income for the districts.
Cabarrus County Schools Deputy Superintendent Jason Van Heukelum says it’s about more than money. It’s about offering options.
“When seven percent of the population in your county has said ‘thanks, but no thanks’ for a product they have technically already paid for with their tax dollars, then we as an organization better wake up and say why aren’t you choosing something that’s free. And we better start to listen,” says Van Heukelum.
Until this year, home school students couldn’t take classes offered through their local public schools. But that changed after state lawmakers agreed to re-define what the law considers a home school. Dewitt Black with the Home School Legal Defense Association says that opened a lot of doors for these families.
“For example, tutors for their children or co-ops where home-schooling families get together and teach courses together, online courses,” says Black.
And then there was another development that got these districts thinking. A virtual charter school wanted to set up shop in Cabarrus County and allow students across the state to take online classes offered by a for-profit company called K12, Inc. The company markets itself as an option for home school students. The charter never opened, but Creason says that was a lesson for Iredell-Statesville Schools.
“Our goal here in the district was to kind of beat those folks to the punch,” says Creason.
She says if parents want online education for their kids, it already exists in the public school system.