Bill to allow low-performing virtual charters to continue gets favorable hearing

By: - April 6, 2023 6:00 am
a child's hand on a computer keyboard

The State Board of Education narrowly approved an enrollment increase for a low performing charter school on Thursday. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Senate Democrats on Tuesday opposed a bill that would allow the state’s two virtual charter schools to continue to operate despite a record of poor academic performance dating to 2015, the year both schools opened.

The North Carolina Virtual Academy and the North Carolina Cyber Academy have earned “D” state performance grades each year of operation. The schools are part of a state pilot program that would be extended another year under House Bill 149.

The bill received a favorable report in the Senate Education-K-12 Committee.

The controversial pilot program has been widely criticized for poor academic performance. Critics have also complained that the schools siphon money from the state’s underfunded traditional public schools.

Charters are public schools but are operate without much of the red tape that traditional schools must navigate.

The pilot was supposed to end after the 2018-19 school year. But lawmakers extended it through the 2022-23 and increased the schools’ enrollment caps. Both schools claim to have long waiting lists.

Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County, said the data show that the schools are not improving, despite receiving millions of dollars in state funding.

Sen. Natasha Marcus

“They have a high rate of withdrawals,” Marcus said. “A lot of kids get there and say, ‘That’s not at all what I thought it would be and withdraw.’”

In addition to receiving “D” state performance grades, the schools have also failed to meet benchmarks showing  student academic improvement from one school year to the next.

A provision in the bill would allow the state to create additional virtual schools despite little evidence that they work, Marcus said.

Sen. Amy Galey, an Alamance County Republican, said it’s unfair to judge the virtual pilot schools by school performance grades. Many students enroll them because they are struggling in traditional school settings, Galey said.

“I think it’s really important to remember that some of them have been bullied, some of them have significant health challenges, some of them need a break for a particular reason from the traditional brick-and-mortar school,” Galey said.

Sen. Amy Galey

She said the fact that many students eventually leave the online charters isn’t evidence that they’re not working.

“I think that it’s equally plausible, if not more so, that it’s [evidence] that it’s working well and these students have done the breaks and [received] the resources that they needed and are now able to resume their education in a more traditional setting,” Galey said.

The committee also approved an amendment to HB 149 to keep funding for the virtual charters at $790 per student.

“These virtual charters are still in a pilot status, so increasing their funding didn’t seem like the best thing to do at this time,” Galey said.

Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, a Wilkes County Republican who co-sponsored the bill, said that many traditional public schools are low performing but continue to operate.

Parents can withdraw their children if they don’t thrive academically in the virtual charters.

“Many of our “D” and “F” schools around the state are in situations where the kid is districted in that school and they have no choice but to go that school,” Elmore said. “This is an effective option for children. They learn better in this environment. And as a teacher myself, I want a kid to land wherever they feel like they’re the most successful.”

Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Guilford County Democrat, said she supports charters that are performing well. She said those schools must be held to the same standards as traditional public schools.

But, Robinson said, she can’t support virtual charters when some state staffers do not believe the model is sustainable. “These have been troublesome,” Robinson said, contending that the pilot program has shown state lawmakers that the schools don’t work.

The push to allow the schools to operate an additional year comes as Republican lawmakers weigh whether to allow charters to create remote charter academies like those that traditional schools used during the height of the pandemic. Remote learning was offered to accommodate parents unwilling to allow their children to return to classrooms for in-person instruction.

After the one-year extension, the two virtual academies would go through a traditional charter school approval process with the Charter School Advisory Board and the State Board of Education. This process applies to all remote charters authorized under HB 149.

Elmore, acknowledged that the pilots have been protected by their pilot status. The new format and structure provided under HB 149 would move the schools into rotation to be evaluated for performance with all state charters, Elmore said.

“They have to come out of the pilot status to be approved in this bill,” Elmore said. [The pilot] is kind of like a double-edged sword. It’s protection in one way but once they get out of it, they’re no longer under the protection of the pilot.”    

North Carolina’s two virtual charter schools would become permanent fixtures on the state’s school choice landscape if a separate bill approved by the House on Thursday becomes law.

Last year Senate Bill 671 to remove the pilot status from the two pilot schools stalled. Under SB 671, the schools would have been granted five-year charters, then become eligible to apply for a 10-year renewal after the 2026-27 school year.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.