Fight over virtual charter school defused

Duval County schools accept revised application, avoids court fight

Published On: Nov 02 2012 07:01:40 AM EDT
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -

Days before an appeals court was set to hear arguments, the Duval County School Board and backers of a proposed virtual charter school have agreed to settle a legal dispute about approval of the school, an attorney said Thursday.

The Duval County board filed a challenge in the 1st District Court of Appeal this year after the state Board of Education overrode a local decision to reject the proposed school. Virtual charters are a relatively new concept in Florida and involve charter-school students receiving instruction online and remotely instead of going to bricks-and-mortar facilities.

Similar disputes about approval of virtual charter schools have flared in other counties, such as Orange, Seminole and Volusia, which have cases pending in the 5th District Court of Appeal.

Brady Cobb, an attorney for The Northeast Florida Virtual School Board, Inc., and The Florida Virtual Academy at Duval County, said Thursday his clients and Duval County school officials reached agreement to dismiss the case after a new virtual-charter application was submitted and received a recommendation of approval.

A Duval County schools attorney filed a motion Thursday that would lead to dismissal of the case, according to an appeals-court online docket. The court had been scheduled to hear arguments in the case next Wednesday.

Florida lawmakers approved a measure in 2011 that set the stage for creation of virtual charter schools. One has started operating in Osceola County, and two others are expected to open next year in Broward and Palm Beach counties, according to K12, Inc., a company that provides instructional services to the schools.

The state has long had other charter schools, which are public schools that are managed day-to-day by outside entities and are free of many typical regulations. Also, it has taken steps in recent years to increase enrollment in virtual classes in districts across the state.

Supporters of charter schools and virtual education see them as a way to increase school choice for students. Charter schools also could become a high-profile issue during the 2013 legislative session, as Gov. Rick Scott has released an education agenda that includes steps such as lifting enrollment caps on existing charter schools.

The Duval dispute stemmed from a decision last year by the county school board to deny the proposed virtual charter school. Backers of the school appealed to the Florida Board of Education, which overrode the county's denial --- prompting Duval to take the issue to the 1st District Court of Appeal.

Among other things, the case alleged that the state board was biased in favor of charter schools and that the Duval County School Board had valid financial and instructional reasons to reject the proposal.

"The School Board had the cards stacked against it before the state board even heard any argument,'' Duval school-board attorneys wrote in one brief. "This is antithetical to the tenets of due process."

But attorneys for the proposed charter school disputed that the state board's ruling should be overturned because of bias. Also, they said the proposed school would hire K12, Inc., to provide instructional services.

"K12, Inc., has extensive experience with meeting Florida and federal requirements and could provide a complete, Florida-approved, nuts-to-bolts virtual education package,'' the charter-school attorneys wrote in a brief.

Backers of creating the school submitted another application this year that included changes, and a Duval County charter-school review committee recommended approval, according to documents.

Jill Johnson, a spokeswoman for the school system, said in an email that Duval's superintendent has not made a recommendation to the School Board, which could take up the issue in December.