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Controversial virtual charter school seeks funding boost, permanent status

The head of a controversial virtual charter school wants North Carolina lawmakers to funnel more cash into the program and clear operations beyond the 2019 sunset of its four-year pilot program.

Nathan Currie, superintendent at N.C. Connections Academy [1], pitched his K-11 program—which is affiliated with international, for-profit education giant Pearson—to state lawmakers and charter school policymakers this week, despite lagging academic performance in the virtual school’s first two years.

The virtual charter, which serves approximately 2,100 students today, earned an overall performance grade of “D” in 2016-2017, according to state records. But Currie points out the school’s reading score ticked up from a “C” to a “B” in the last year, while its math score improved from an “F” to a “D.”

“In math, we didn’t do so well,” Currie told the state’s Charter School Advisory Board [2] on Monday. The panel assists the State Board of Education in crafting charter policies and fields charter applications.

“We were not proud,” added Currie. “So we rolled up our sleeves, we made some improvements, and we took that ‘F’ to a ‘D.'”

However, Connections Academy’s scores are higher than that of N.C. Virtual Academy [3], the other virtual charter in the state program, which reported a “C” in reading and an “F” in math in each of the last two school years.

Currie made a similar presentation Wednesday to the legislature’s Joint Education Oversight Committee [4], also asking for lawmakers to shore up funding for the virtual program.

Under the state’s pilot program, launched in 2015, North Carolina’s two virtual charter schools—which enroll students from across the state—receive roughly the same funding as typical, “brick-and-mortar” charters, although they are not entitled to per-pupil cash designated for low-wealth and small counties.

State law also caps local funding amounts per student at $790. Depending on the district in which the student resides, that may be more or less than the local funding per student, although Currie said this week that his program often loses out when it comes to students hailing from the state’s largest school systems in Wake and Mecklenburg counties.

And, although virtual charters are generally thought to offer less costly schooling because students can take all of their classes online and not in a traditional school facility, Currie said this week that he believes virtual programs have roughly the same costs.

Virtual charter backers say the programs offer a flexible alternative to K-12 students who’ve struggled in a traditional environment, although many public school advocates have been openly critical of for-profit affiliated virtual charter programs, which they say have reported dismal academic results and soaring dropout rates [5] in states across the country, including North Carolina [6].

A 2015 Stanford University study [7] reported serious deficiencies in student performance nationwide in like programs.

The pilots for Connections Academy and Virtual Academy are now entering their third year of operations. Currie said this week that the uncertainty about the school’s future is affecting the families it serves.

“We have families that want to know if the school will be there next year,” said Currie. “It’s really not helping our enrollment.”

State lawmakers made no decisions on virtual charters Tuesday, but say that they expect the matter to return in a pending committee discussion, which has yet to be scheduled as of this writing.

Look for expanded coverage of this important issue Wednesday morning at Policy Watch.