Education

Despite long wait lists, North Carolina’s two virtual charter schools won’t be adding students

The State Board of Education (SBE) on Friday rejected a plan to allow North Carolina’s two low-performing virtual charter schools to increase their enrollments by as many as 3,800 students for one year to accommodate families in need of remote school options during the COVID-19 pandemic.

School leaders reported that NC Cyber Academy (NCCA) and NC Virtual Academy (NCVA) had combined wait lists of nearly 9,500 students.

But despite lengthy wait lists, the board voted 7-5 against the move, which board member J.B. Buxton said would give NCCA and NCVA preferential treatment over higher performing charters that have created virtual opportunities for students in response to the pandemic.

The virtual charters have scored school performance grades of “D” four consecutive years. The grades are based on state accountability measures. Test scores account for 80% of the grade and 20% is based on school growth.

“One thing I’m struggling with a little bit is there are charter schools that are going to virtual environments across the state who might be A charter schools or B schools and sitting at an enrollment cap with no ability to enroll additional students, but we’re giving two charter schools the opportunity to do that in an emergency way, so it’s unclear to me why we’re prejudicing two charter schools over the rest of them,” Buxton said.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican who is running for governor, countered that the virtual charters have more experience with remote learning.

“This is their model they’ve been doing this for five years,” Forest said. “This is the way they operate. I think parents can kind of look at this and go, they sort of know what they’re doing out here.”

Forest used the discussion to take a swipe at Gov. Roy Cooper, his Democratic opponent in the Nov. 3 General Election, for his decision to reopen schools with a mix of in-person instruction and remote learning. Cooper also gave school districts the option to reopen schools using remote learning only if coronavirus metrics indicate that’s best for students and staff.

“I think everybody on this call knows that I’m the biggest proponent in state for getting our kids back in the classroom where they belong,” Forest said during the board’s remote meeting. “I think our kids should be in the classroom right now, not learning virtually so this has nothing to do with virtual learning. For me, it has to do with providing options to our parents and students who are looking for these options.”

State Republicans have generally called for a more aggressive school reopening.

Board member Amy White, who was appointed to the board by former Republican governor Pat McCrory, introduced the plan to allow the two schools to increase enrollments last week.

“This is an opportunity for the State Board of Education to be responsive to students and families across our state who would like to have the opportunity for an additional choice of instruction while we are facing this pandemic and this is just one tool in our toolbox that we can access and leverage in order to be best responsive to them,” White said on Friday.

The Charter School Advisory Board recommended Thursday that the schools be allowed to increase enrollments for one year with certain restrictions.

Under that recommendation, students could have enrolled in the virtual charters if there was no full-time virtual school option in the student’s district; if no spots were available in a district full-time virtual school; or if district was unwilling to provide devices or internet service.

The board’s vote came on a new proposal introduced by Forest that would have required a weighted lottery giving preference to students without access to a full-time virtual school or who did not have computer or internet access in their home.

Forest’s plan would have also held the virtual charter schools harmless for the academic performances of students added to the schools due to the coronavirus pandemic. The board would have received the student’s test scores, however.

“I believe this will actually help the board in the decision-making process down the road when they determine if the pilots should get a full charter or not,” Forest said. “We can see if the students who already had a virtual education under their belt did better than those who were enrolled for the year.”

The General Assembly authorized the two schools in 2015 as part of a four-year pilot program. Lawmakers later extended the program for an additional four years through 2022-23.

NCCA’s has a wait list of 2,888 students. School leaders said they could add 1,000 students and provide each with a laptop and technical support throughout the school year. The additional students would increase the school’s enrollment to 3,534 students.

Meanwhile, NC Virtual Academy’s wait list is 6,600 students. The school said it can add 2,800 students. That would push its current enrollment from 2,945 to 5,745 students.

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