Virtual charters continue to be plagued by high dropout rates, low student performance

By: - November 17, 2016 5:00 pm

virtualschool2State education leaders may be reporting lackluster grades and soaring dropout rates in two new virtual charter schools in North Carolina, but customers, by and large, seem satisfied.

That’s the synopsis of a draft report on North Carolina’s virtual charter pilot, which includes two schools, N.C. Virtual Academy and N.C. Connections Academy, run by for-profit companies K-12 Inc. and Pearson, respectively.

“There’s nothing in there that was, unfortunately, surprising,” said Keith Poston, executive director of the Public School Forum of N.C., a nonpartisan policy and research group studying public education. “That’s what we’re seeing across the nation.”

The four-year pilot program, which has been dogged by criticism since its inception, requires reports from North Carolina’s charter school office to the N.C. General Assembly. State Board of Education members are expected to hear the draft report in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, the draft report heard with little discussion at the Charter School Advisory Board this week points to a handful of troubling dispatches from the schools, but offers no opinions overall on the virtual charters.

It also mirrors many of the criticisms nationwide of such programs. A Stanford University study last fall found that students in some subjects trailed their peers in traditional schools by as much as an entire academic year.

And the leaders of K-12 Inc. settled a high-profile court case with California Attorney General Kamala Harris this year, agreeing to dispense millions in payments and debt relief to their nonprofit school operators after state officials said the Virginia-based company misled the state in order to take in more public funding.

School advocates say North Carolina should be worried about similar issues in this state, even as virtual charter leaders argue that they’re being unfairly judged.

“The academic results are unacceptable (in this week’s report),” Poston said. “The state needs to move from finding ways to keep these schools open and focus on holding them accountable. These are kids, and they’re failing.”

Among the highlights, withdrawals from both programs soared above 30 percent of total enrollment this year, although at Virtual Academy, that number drops to about 25 percent when it excludes students who intended to enroll for a “finite” period of time.

It’s an important distinction because state law allowed exception for such students last year, although the schools’ withdrawal rate may not exceed 25 percent. It’s unclear how the news that Connections Academy surpassed that mark will affect the school if at all, given state law this school year allows a handful of additional exceptions, including students who cite “personal” reasons for leaving, students who move out of state and a handful more.

It’s also worth noting that a survey of parents with children in the program found that only about 35 percent say they were asked by the virtual charter whether their student would be enrolled for a finite period.

When it comes to academics, the report found virtual charters lagging there too, with both schools receiving an overall performance grade, gleaned from testing, of “D.” Some subjects were worse than others. The schools both received an “F” in mathematics and a “C” in reading.

At Connections Academy, the report also found shortcomings in testing participation, noting that, while state and federal law requires a minimum of 95 percent participation by student groups, Connections Academy met just 55 percent of its participation targets.

Despite the poor marks, this week’s report found customers are still generally satisfied with the program, with 92 percent of parents who completed a full year and 72 percent of parents whose children withdrew expressing “overall school satisfaction.”

Gary Miron, a Western Michigan University professor who’s studied the explosion of virtual charters in his own state in recent years, says virtual charter performance in North Carolina is following a troubling path seen in other states.

“It’s an outright scam,” said Miron, pointing out school performance ratings are “abysmal” in other states too.

“These private companies are walking away with so much public money and it’s hurting our children,” added Miron.

Connections Academy Principal Nathan Currie could not be reached for comment on this week’s report, and Joel Medley, head of Virtual Academy, declined an interview request with Policy Watch.

However, this week’s report to the Charter School Advisory Board came bundled with a response from Medley, who pointed out that the school had “many successes” in its first year, including meeting its testing participation goals, generally satisfied customers and a clean financial audit.

“We readily admit that our goal is to improve academically,” wrote Medley. “However, we want to point out the positive milestones from our first year of serving students and families.”

Medley added that the school planned several changes for the second year to improve student performance, including shifting the schedule for high school students, hiring an additional math teacher at the middle and high school level and implementing a “data-driven instructional model.”

Earlier this year, Medley told Policy Watch that he believes virtual charters in North Carolina were being unfairly criticized for high dropout numbers, noting students often flow into and out of virtual charters.

“That is reflective of the model of education, not the quality of the program,” said Medley.

For his part, Poston said he does believe there may be merit to online learning in some cases, pointing out some students can use such programs to get ahead during the summer months.

“But the body of work at these two new virtual charter schools so far is troubling.”

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Billy Ball

Billy Ball, worked at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020 — first as an education reporter and later as managing editor.