The State Board of Education approved a process Thursday for selecting which groups will operate two virtual charter schools, set to open in North Carolina in 2015 as required by the N.C. General Assembly.

Several different online companies are anticipated to apply for the pilot education program created by the legislature, which seeks to provide over 2000 North Carolina students with a publicly-funded online education. The idea of virtual charter schools has been the subject of great debate both locally and nationally.

“As far as I can tell, there is no evidence that indicates full-time online learning benefits students in any way,” said Heidi Carter, chair of the Durham Board of Education.

Carter referred to a 2011 Stanford University study of Pennsylvania charter schools, which found that virtual charter schools performed worse than both traditional public schools and brick-and-mortar charter schools.

Bryan Setser, president and founding board chair of the North Carolina Connections Academy, which is vying to open a school, argued that traditional schools don't work well for all students.

“The 5,300 requests we’ve had have run the gamut from kids who have been home-schooled or would like to be, to kids who are in an area where they don’t feel like their face-to-face school is a good option, to kids who have special needs,” Setser said.

The North Carolina Connections Academy application was not passed on to the planning year as part of 11 new traditional charter schools approved by the State Board of Education, even though it was recommended by the Charter School Advisory Board. The North Carolina Connections Academy will now go through the new virtual schools application process for the 2015-2016 school year, which was approved Thursday by the BOE.

“It is hard to tell what really went on behind the scenes. They have never dealt with a virtual charter. They don’t have the protocols and procedures to deal with it, so it felt like the pilot process made the most sense for everybody,” Setser said.

Connections Academy, the parent organization of NCCA, describes itself on its website as a “leading, fully accredited provider of high-quality, highly accountable virtual schooling for students in grades K–12,” owned by Pearson PLC, an international media and education company.

K12 Inc., another company vying for a virtual charter school, has attempted to sue the state to allow it to open an online charter school. In that case, there were concerns about its educational quality after Tennessee closed a school that the company ran.

“There are huge questions about the quality of the education delivery,” said Matt Ellinwood, a policy analyst at the North Carolina Justice Center. “We have to ask, is the school going to be an improvement?”

He cited requirements that the student to teacher ratio for grades K through eight is 50-to-1, and for grades 9-12, 150-to-1.

Setser maintained his confidence in the school despite the requirements.

“I have been doing this for over ten years and so has my team. We know what works best for kids,” he said.

Still, some contend that the large number of charter schools already established in districts like Durham—where there are currently 11 with two more on the way—negatively affects the district’s ability to provide services.

“The burden comes because charter schools serve a lower proportion of expensive-to-educate children,” said Helen Ladd, Susan B. King professor of public policy and professor of economics. “The district can’t just cut back proportionally on the number of teachers and schools.”

But Setser believes that the focus should be on proving the merits of online education.

“It is not incumbent upon us to serve every kid in North Carolina. That’s not the way a virtual charter would work,” Setser said. “We are setting out to prove that we can offer a high quality education.”

Though the Connections Academy website lists its students in other states as having been accepted to Duke, Dean of Admissions Christoph Guttentag said there are no records of anyone from a Connections Academy being admitted in the last two years.

He noted that Duke’s holistic admissions process means that "we consider each applicant within a very broad context, and we find talented students in every kind of high school.”

Ladd added that in the relationship between the public and charter schools, the emphasis should be on promoting public good when using the taxpayers' dollars.

“If we are going to have charter schools we need to make sure we have a good accountability system for them,” Ladd said. “We don’t have as robust of a system of accountability in North Carolina.”