NC may turn to low-performing virtual charters in response to demand for online education


Last year, after four consecutive years of poor academic performance, state lawmakers rewarded North Carolina’s virtual charter school pilot program with an extension that allows its two schools to operate through the 2022-23 school year.

The pilot program created in 2015 was supposed to end after the 2018-19 school year. But lawmakers apparently saw something promising in N.C. Cyber Academy (NCCA) and N.C. Virtual Academy (NCVA) not reflected in their academic performances.

Both schools have earned school performance letter grades of “D” every year since opening for the 2015-16 school year. Lawmakers waived letter grade requirements for the 2019-2020 school year because schools closed in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The State Board of Education must have also seen some camouflaged and unrealized potential in the two virtual schools last summer.

The board granted NCVA permission to increase its enrollment despite its academic struggles. And while it denied NCCA permission to grow, that was mostly because the school was in the middle of a messy divorce from the firm that served as its “Education Management Operator.”

Now, NCCA and NCVA are on the brink of being blessed again, despite their performance woes.

On Wednesday, the board began a discussion that could lead to significant enrollment increases at both schools to accommodate what officials in the Office of Charter Schools said is a list of more than 9,000 students waiting to enroll in them.

NCVA has a waiting list with 6,337 K-12 students and NCCA’s list contains the names of 2,571. Some students were on the lists before the COVID-19 pandemic, but others joined recently after learning their districts would not provide a remote option in the fall.

NCCA’s enrollment was 2,328 students last school year while NCVA’s stood at 2,717.

COVID-driven demand

Supporters of the proposed pandemic-driven enrollment increases say the need for more virtual options is most acute in rural school districts without the resources to create their own virtual schools to serve families uncomfortable with sending children to school for in-person instruction before the coronavirus riddle is solved.

“Some but not all districts across our state have been able to launch their own virtual academy,” said Amy White, who chairs the state board’s Education Innovation & Charter Schools Committee at a Wednesday board meeting. “Most of these academies, largely but not only, are present in our larger, more wealthy counties where many, many resources and many choices are already present.”

More than half of the 160,000 students in the well-resourced Wake County Public School System, the state’s largest, have enrolled in that district’s virtual school for the upcoming school year, White noted.

She asked the board to consider a plan that would allow NCCA and NCVA to increase enrollments short-term to meet the “need and demand” for remote instruction during the pandemic.

“I wouldn’t be suggesting that we increase this enrollment long-term but solely for the means of meeting the needs of students who cannot access quality instruction in an in-class, classroom,” White said.

Dave Machado, director of the Office of Charter Schools, said leaders at both schools are receptive to the idea of increasing their enrollment during the pandemic.

“Both of the schools acknowledged to me in our conversations that if this was approved, they would only increase [enrollment] with what they could efficiently and effectively do as far as hiring more teachers and staff,” Machado said. “They are very much in support of this idea but neither one of them give me the impression that they want to do wholesale increases. They want to do it strategically and efficiently.”

Multiple unanswered questions

Board of Education member J.B. Buxton

Board member J.B. Buxton said he’s concerned about whether the virtual schools can hire teachers and support staff and find computers and internet connections by August 17, the first day of school in North Carolina.

“I’m worried that we’re going to be promising more than we can deliver,” Buxton said.

He asked if the intent is to only make enrollment expansion available to areas in the state where there is no virtual option.

White responded that providing the option to students in those areas should be a priority.

“We can ask the Office of Charter Schools to have that conversation with both of those entities and that could be a stipulation,” she said.

Board member Jill Camnitz asked whether the students on the schools’ wait lists are from counties and school districts not providing remote options for students.

Machado said he didn’t have that information but would get it, along with the answers to other questions the board said it needs before deciding whether to allow the schools to increase their enrollments.

Camnitz also wanted to know where the schools would find teachers experienced in remote learning when there is a shortage of such teachers across the state.

Machado said the schools have experience in training teachers. He said school leaders are confident they can find quality teachers and train them before schools reopen.

Board Chairman Eric Davis reminded the group that one of the schools recently said it planned to focus on improving student performance instead of increasing enrollment.

“Now we’re talking about doing something fundamentally different than that, for all of the right reasons,” Davis said. “But still, performance is an issue. It’s one thing to have choice, but we’ve got to make sure we’re providing quality choice.”

He also called for a specific plan for increasing enrollment at the two schools.

“We don’t have that at this point,” Davis said. “I know that’s a lot of work to do in a short period of time, but personally for me to seriously consider this, I need to know with certainty that quality will be delivered to a higher degree than it is currently and what are the numbers they’re talking about increasing enrollment and how will they deliver. There’s a lot of risk in providing choice without that.”

Promising solution or flawed model?

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican who is running for governor, said state officials have received hundreds of thousands of calls from people looking for remote options for their children.

Forest said the two virtual schools are critical assets that are being overlooked when needed most.

“Sometimes these things are right under our nose and we don’t seem to pay too much attention to them,” he said.

Forest noted that the schools provide devices and internet connections to students who need them.

“That really is one of our biggest challenges with remote learning now is the fact that we have the haves and the have nots,” Forest said. “There are so many districts that don’t any virtual option at all. Some are going to be trying to make it up. They’re going to be trying to do this from scratch when there are folks who know how to do this, how to train teachers and do it in a way that parents can understand.”

Forest mentioned the schools and their waiting list during a Council of State meeting earlier this week.

Critics of virtual charters, however, have raised numerous concerns about the model.

In April of this year, the research and advocacy group Public Schools First NC issued a report (“The Facts on Virtual Schools”) that was highly critical of virtual charters. The report cited several factors in support of the conclusion that “there is strong evidence that online charters are of limited value to students, local school districts and taxpayers,” including:

  • poor academic results, including low four-year graduation rates, poor test scores, and high dropout rates;
  • limited student-teacher interaction;
  • the involvement of for-profit management firms;
  • a loss of revenue for traditional public schools; and
  • the lack of well-established best practices for preparing teachers to teach in an online environment.

In the summer of 2019, Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat seeking reelection in November, cited the schools’ poor academic performance when he vetoed Senate Bill 392 that would have allowed the schools to increase enrollment by 20% each year.

“Current law already allows the State Board of Education to lift the enrollment cap on virtual charter schools,” Cooper, a Democrat, pointed out in a statement. “Both schools have been low performing, raising concern about the effectiveness of this pilot. Decisions on adding more students should remain with the Board so it can measure progress and make decisions that will provide the best education for students.”

The North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) and the North Carolina Justice Center (parent organization of NC Policy Watch) also issued statements critical of the proposal.

“Unproven and unaccountable education methods have no place in North Carolina,” said Mark Jewell, who was president of NCAE at time. “We applaud the Governor’s veto of SB 392, and hope this sends a clear message to lawmakers that our students deserve better than the broken promises made by virtual charter schools.”

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