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House votes to extend pilot for NC’s virtual charter schools

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  • A discussion about a bill that would allow charter schools to operate remote learning academies turned into a debate about the existence of the state's two virtual charter schools, which have been low-performing since they began in 2015. #nced #ncpol
  • The state's two virtual charters have been low-performing since they began in 2015. Some lawmakers in a House education committee questioned why a bill under consideration would allow it to continue as a pilot for another year. #nced #ncpol
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A discussion in the House’s K-12 education committee on Tuesday about a bill that would allow charter schools to offer a remote learning option turned instead into an argument about whether the state’s two virtual charter schools should be allowed to continue on.

The bill would allow charter schools to offer remote academies, similar to what traditional public schools offered during COVID-19 and beyond. But a separate section of the bill allows the state’s two virtual charter schools to continue on in their pilot status for another year and increase their enrollment.

At issue is the schools’ performance. They were launched in the 2015-16 school year as a pilot program and have consistently been designated by the state as low-performing schools.

Low-performing schools are schools that get a D or F on the statewide school report cards and don’t exceed growth. They are considered continually low performing if that happens for two out of the last three years.

Despite the schools’ performance, their pilot status has been extended before — the pilot was originally supposed to last only four years. The bill under consideration in the committee would extend the pilot another year, meaning it would now be slated to end in the 2025-26 school year. In addition, the bill would allow the schools to grow their population 20% from what they were in the 2021-22 school year.

“I really don’t understand why we are continuing to extend this pilot program. Since 2016, these schools have received D ratings and have not met growth standards. I really don’t understand that. Can you explain that?” asked Rep. Julie von Haefen, D-Wake.

The argument from Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, R-Wilkes, sponsor of the bill, was that there are many traditional public schools that perform similarly, and nobody tries to shut them down. However, in those cases, children don’t really have an alternative option. In the case of a charter school, the family could choose to take their kid out of the school.

“Many of those schools are the exact same schools year after year after year. It doesn’t matter what the metric is. It doesn’t matter how you measure them,” he said. “But many of the policies in those areas do not allow those kids to go to any other school. They do not have open school districts. They are mandated to go to that school. They have to be bused to that school. That’s a big differentiating factor with this online statewide charter. The parent can choose with their feet.”

He also mentioned how for some kids, virtual learning is a godsend. He told an anecdote about a student on the autism spectrum who after moving to virtual learning started getting As and Bs.

“If that kid can find success, that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “And it’s one kid at a time.”

The bill ultimately passed the committee and went on to pass the full House later in the day.

A statewide calendar flexibility bill that was discussed in the committee a few weeks back also passed the House education committee and the full House Monday. As did a bill that would have the State Board of Education create a high school diploma endorsement for arts proficiency in North Carolina schools. The purpose of the bill is “to encourage students to obtain a well-rounded, high-quality arts education,” according to language from the bill text.

All three of these bills go now to the Senate. Calendar flexibility is a perennial topic at the General Assembly, which is usually looked on more favorably by the House. Generally, when these bills pass the House they go nowhere in the Senate, and this time isn’t likely to be different.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.