- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 7, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Lawyers representing the families of three children who attend a struggling online school pleaded with a judge in a Nashville courtroom Tuesday to keep it open.

Attorneys for the families argued that state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen should never have ordered the Tennessee Virtual Academy to be closed at the end of the current school year.

The families say their children have special needs - one is severely disabled - and are doing well in the school, where kids learn on the Internet. Their attorneys argued that state law allows the school one more year to prove itself before it can be closed.

They asked Senior Judge Bill Cantrell, who was sitting in for Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman, to issue a preliminary injunction that would keep the Tennessee Virtual Academy open for the upcoming school year and allow it to begin enrolling new students now.

“Enrollment has to be allowed to begin in order for the school to be open in the fall,” Tara Swafford, an attorney who represents the families, told the court.

At the Tennessee Virtual Academy, kids stay home and do schoolwork on their computers. The Union County School Board contracts with K12 Inc., a Virginia-based for-profit corporation, to operate the school, but the students can be located anywhere in the state.

Under state law, Tennessee’s education commissioner has the authority to close the school if it ranks among the worst performers for three consecutive years. The school has consistently been ranked 1 on a 5-point scale, with 1 being the worst and 5 the best, since it opened in 2011. Critics have called it a failure and said the for-profit corporation that provides the curriculum is more interested in making money than educating children.

Swafford argued that the school is improving and that the law giving the school three consecutive years of the lowest rankings was passed in 2013; therefore, the school has one more year to turn itself around.

An attorney for the state said the families don’t have standing to sue because kids aren’t entitled to go to any public school of their choosing. William Marett Jr., a senior counsel in the State Attorney General’s office, however, conceded that Union County and K12 might have standing. He said that children with special needs are entitled to get an individualized school program at the public schools, and that the families would have standing to go to federal court and sue a traditional public school that was not providing it.

Lawyers also argued over whether the families had exhausted administrative remedies with the Department of Education first before suing.

Cantrell said he would rule later.

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