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NCAA cries foul on virtual charters

A prediction: Runaway school choice will finally be corralled on the basketball court or football field.

Charter and voucher proponents have prevailed in pushing their agenda because they've been able to present the simplest message: Parents deserve a choice. The consequences of those choices, however, are starting to manifest themselves in ways that are even simpler to understand. When charter and voucher schools begin to look like a way for someone to cheat in athletic eligibility, that's when the game is over.

It's happening. The NCAA announced last week that it will no longer accept coursework from 24 online charter schools with curriculum provided by K12 Inc.

"All of these virtual schools are highly profitable," writes education historian Diane Ravitch, "The K12 corporation, listed on the New York Stock Exchange, receives full tuition for each student; the district loses the tuition, and the student gets a computer and textbooks. K12 is known to have a high dropout rate and low graduation rates."

According to Ravitch, this is the first time a major accrediting body has declared that credits from K12 schools are unacceptable.

K12 is the for-profit company started by Michael Milken, the junk-bond king and convicted felon. His charter school management company has ridden the wave of so-called school reform to open taxpayer-funded schools across the country. A perfect new racket.

The NCAA's list of ineligible schools doesn't include any in Indiana, but K12 operates Hoosier Academies through a charter awarded by Ball State University. As StateImpact Indiana reported three years ago, questions about the schools and the quality of their instruction are long-standing. Ball State last year granted a three-year extension, with performance conditions, to Hoosier Academy-Indianapolis. The renewal request for Hoosier Academy-Muncie was withdrawn -- likely because the authorizer had indicated it wouldn't be renewed.

Virtual charters appear to be targeting parents with professional sports visions for their children. Another Indiana charter -- Indiana Connections Academy -- is advertising heavily on TV. What the operators don't share is that the virtual school posted a 33 percent graduation rate last year.

If the NCAA, which long tolerated questionable academic practices among its member schools, is cracking down on virtual schools, you can bet there are troubling questions about the classroom records of student-athletes "graduating" from virtual charters. And the first time an athlete from one of those programs nudges out a student from a traditional public school for a scholarship or prep award, the game will be up for unlimited school choice.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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