Commentary

New report on virtual charter schools a good reminder of weakness of North Carolina’s model

Virtual charter schoolsThis morning, three charter advocacy organizations – the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now (50CAN), and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers – released a report calling for tighter oversight of virtual charter schools.  The report, responding to the overwhelmingly poor performance of students in virtual charter schools, makes a number of recommendations intended to improve virtual charter school performance.

Virtual charter schools are online schools for students in grades K-12 operated by for-profit companies.  Student performance in virtual charter schools has been shockingly bad.  The most careful, comprehensive study of virtual charter schools, from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, found that virtual charter students achieved the equivalent of 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days of learning in reading than students in traditional public schools.

North Carolina has two virtual charter schools: N.C. Connections Academy, owned by the British multinational corporation Pearson PLC, and Virtual Academy, managed by the controversial Virginia-based company K-12, Inc.  Both are authorized to enroll up to 1,500 students in grades K-12, and are in their first year of operation in North Carolina.  While it’s still too early to have test results for these schools, high student withdrawals indicate that things are not starting well.

The report released today makes a number of recommendations that are not found in North Carolina’s virtual charter policies:

  • Establish criteria for enrollment in full-time virtual charter schools based on factors proven necessary for student success.
  • Allow expanded enrollment only if the virtual charter meets performance standards.
  • Set funding levels based on the real costs of full-time virtual charter schools.
  • Fund full-time virtual charter school students via a performance-based funding system.

These recommendations should come as no surprise to members of the North Carolina General Assembly.  In March of 2015, the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division provided certain General Assembly members with these very same policy options (as well as others) for strengthening oversight of virtual charter schools.  These recommendations – now supported by leading charter advocates – were ignored.  In fact, rather than strengthening oversight and developing policies to improve the performance of virtual charters, both the House and Senate budget proposals weaken what little oversight had previously been in place.

Even under the best available policy conditions, virtual charter schools are unlikely to work.  The for-profit structure rewards boosting enrollment at the expense of delivering high-quality education.  The best policy would be for the General Assembly to pull the plug on virtual charter schools entirely.  The state-run North Carolina Virtual Public School offers a much higher quality online learning environment for students who are not well-served in a bricks-and-mortar environment.  Absent full repeal of the virtual charter schools, hopefully today’s report will spur the General Assembly to recognize the error in their ways and re-think their approach to virtual charter schools.

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