Education

Bill to lift virtual charter schools’ enrollment cap sent to Gov. Cooper

A controversial bill that eliminates the cap on enrollment growth for the state’s two virtual charter schools is on its way to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk.

The state Senate on Tuesday sent Senate Bill 392 to Cooper on a 27-15 vote despite complaints from critics who argue the school’s poor performance record should disqualify them from adding more students.

The state House previously approved the bill.

SB 392 eliminates the 2,592 cap on virtual charter schools and authorizes the SBE to allow them to increase enrollment by more than 20 percent if it “determines that doing so would be in the best interest of North Carolina students.”

Enabling legislation allowed each school to enroll a maximum of 1,500 students the first year of operation. The schools are allowed to increase enrollment by 20 percent each year up to a maximum of 2,592 students in the fourth year of the pilot program.

Alan Duncan

SBE Vice Chairman Alan Duncan expressed concern about granting the schools permission to add students during a June board meeting.

“I’d hope they’d focus on getting to a place first of meeting expectation with the students they have without the added burden of having to take on a number of additional students while still having that burden before them,” Duncan said.

Duncan is referring to the schools’ less than stellar performance records.

Each has earned state performance grades of “D” every year since opening in 2015. Neither school has met student academic growth goals during that span. Both are on the state’s list of continually low-performing schools.

The SBE approved NC Virtual Academy’s (NCVA) request to increase enrollment up to 20 percent for the 2019-20 school year.

It did not approve the request by N.C. Cyber Academy (NCCA) — formerly N.C. Connections Academy — citing a major transition the school will undergo as it begins to operate without its Education Management Organization (EMO).

NCVA, one of the state’s two virtual charter schools, enrolled 2,425 students this past school year. If it increases its enrollment by 20 percent, NCVA would add 485 students to push total enrollment to 2,910.

Meanwhile, NCCA enrolled 2,512 students last school year. As of June 6, nearly 2,200 students have enrolled for the 2019-20 school year. It has a waiting list of 398 students, officials said.

There’s more in SB 392 than enrollment growth for virtual charters.

There’s more to SB 392

It’s packed with a mishmash of charter school-related items, some taken from other bills.

If signed into law by Cooper, SB 392 would give the State Superintendent the authority to approve charter school facility bonds.

Deanna Ballard

Charters seeking approval to issue private activity bonds would be able to bypass local governments, which must sign off on the financing option.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Deanna Ballard, (R-Watauga) who said allowing the State Superintendent to approve such requests would give charters an alternative to local governments that may not want to approve them for political reasons.

That scenario played out in Durham about a year ago when the Durham City Council voted 5-2 to not approve a bond request for Excelsior Classical Academy, which sought financing to pay off a bridge load it used to buy the building it had been leasing.

Council members who voted against the bond request did so in a show of support for Durham Public Schools, which they contend has been harmed by an expansion of charters in the county.

Another provision changes one of the three conditions under which a charter school could be denied a 10 year renewal.

Under the bill, a charter renewal could be denied if the percentage of students proficient on end-of-grade and end-of-course tests is at least five percentage points lower than the schools in the county in which the charter is located.

It would replace the provision in law that gives the SBE the authority to deny a charter renewal if a charters academic outcomes for the “immediately preceding three years have not been comparable to the academic outcomes of students” in the local school district in the county in which the charter is located.

Finally, if signed into law, the bill would require a “nationwide criminal background check” for each member of a charter school’s board of directors.

The background checks is to ensure members have not been convicted of any of several dozen felonies and misdemeanors, such as drug possession or embezzlement.

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