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Virtual charter school gets legislative approval to grow, but opponents push for a veto

The Senate approved a bill Tuesday that would, among other things, get rid of the enrollment cap on one of the state’s two virtual charter schools and allow it to grow its population by 20% annually if it so chose. While there was no debate on the Senate floor Tuesday, legislative proponents of the bill have said that the schools attract “struggling students” and shouldn’t have a cap that artificially cuts off the number of such students who can use the resource. 

Opponents, however, point to the schools’ poor performance and trouble with virtual charter schools in other states as reasons not to let the schools grow easily. 

The North Carolina Association of Educators and the NC Justice Center sent a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper yesterday asking him to veto the legislation. 

“Virtual charter schools have symbolic value as the most egregious example of a system of school privatization that has gotten out of control in North Carolina and it is time to take a stand,” the letter states. “Our children and our state deserve better. We hope that you will veto this legislation.”

The school, NC Virtual Academy, has been operating since 2015 along with the other state virtual charter school, NC Cyber Academy (recently renamed from NC Connections Academy). Both schools have performed poorly in that time. They scored “Ds” in the most recent release of the school performance grades and neither met academic growth.

The legislation doesn’t automatically apply to NC Cyber Academy because that school is undergoing monthly monitoring by the Charter School Advisory Board. Until it comes off of monitoring status, it would need State Board of Education approval to grow. 

The monitoring comes in the wake of a fight between NC Cyber Academy and its management company, leading the school to ask the State Board of Education to allow it to abandon its operator and run day-today operations on its own. The State Board approved that request.

Both schools have over 2,000 students, and the law previously capped the enrollment of each school at 2,592.

Both schools could still grow above that number under current state law if the State Board of Education deemed it in the best interest of students. In fact, the State Board already did just that recently with NC Virtual Academy. 

“State Board review is needed for these sorts of massive enrollment increases that compound annually, particularly in the case of virtual charter schools due to their troubling record in North Carolina and across the nation,” the letter to the governor states. 

The letter also takes on proponent’s assertion that poor performance is the result of the struggling population attracted to such schools. 

“In their first year of operation, both virtual charter schools finished dead last in the state in student growth. The North Carolina Virtual Academy finished in the bottom 4% of all schools in each of the next two years, and the North Carolina Connections Academy consistently finished dead last,” the letter states. “Proponents of this legislation claim the only reason these schools are doing so poorly is that they serve students with high levels of need, but growth scores take these characteristics into account and are even more problematic than their overall ‘D’ grades and consistent inclusion on the list of low-performing schools.”

The letter goes on to reference recent news articles about troubled virtual charters in other states, including a data breach that affected K-12 Inc., the company that operates NC Virtual Academy. 

Brian Jodice, executive vice president of Parents for Educational Freedom North Carolina, said that it’s up to families where they want their kids to go to school and the state shouldn’t be limiting their options.

“You’re going to know how families feel about these programs and these options based on where they’re at,” he said. 

If families find that the schools aren’t working for their children, then they won’t go, he said. But the fact that families continue to use the schools shows that there is a demand.

He said his organization doesn’t support arbitrary caps, pointing out that once upon a time North Carolina capped the number of regular charter schools it could have at 100. 

The state’s two virtual charter schools were supposed to operate as a four-year pilot program, but the General Assembly has already extended their operation to 2023.

The bill went through some changes while it was being approved in the House, so the Senate had to vote again Tuesday to indicate that senators agreed with the House’s changes. The final vote tally was 28-14. The bill is now on to the governor, who will have the option of signing off on it or using his veto power. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.