Governor Cooper vetoes bill to allow low-performing virtual charter schools to increase enrollment

Gov. Roy Cooper on Monday vetoed a bill that would have allowed North Carolina’s two virtual charter schools to increase enrollment by 20 percent a year.

The controversial legislation also would have given the State Board of Education (SBE) authority to allow the schools to increase enrollment by more than 20 percent for any school year if it deemed doing so was in the best interest of North Carolina students.

The bill has been controversial because N.C. Virtual Academy and the N.C. Cyber Academy opened in 2015.  Both have been labeled low-performing every year since then under the state’s testing system.

“Current law already allows the State Board of Education to lift the enrollment cap on virtual charter schools,” Cooper said in a statement. “Both schools have been low performing, raising concern about the effectiveness of this pilot.”

Cooper said decisions about adding more students should remain with the SBE so it can measure progress and make decisions that will provide the best education for students.

The N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE) issued a statement in support of the veto.

“Unproven and unaccountable education methods have no place in North Carolina,” said NCAE President Mark Jewell. “We applaud the Governor’s veto of SB 392, and hope this sends a clear message to lawmakers that our students deserve better than the broken promises made by virtual charter schools.”

Earlier this month, Jewell joined Rick Glazier, executive director of the North Carolina Justice Center, in asking Cooper to veto the bill.

“Virtual charter schools have symbolic value as the most egregious example of a system of school privatization that has gotten out of control of in North Carolina and it is time to take a stand,” wrote Glazier and Jewell. “Our children and our state deserve better.”

The Justice Center is the parent organization of Policy Watch.

Meanwhile, State Rep. Craig Horn, (R-Union), said he found it difficult to find the difference between the bill that was before Cooper and the governor’s statement about the SBE already having the authority to decide whether to allow the schools to increase their enrollments.

“I’m sorry to say it, but this is political double talk,” said Horn, who co-chairs the House K-12 Education Committee.

It was unclear late Monday whether Republicans would try to override the governor’s veto.

Under enabling legislation, the schools can enroll a maximum of 1,500 student in the first year of operation and may increase annually by 20 percent up to a maximum student enrollment of 2,592 in the fourth year of the pilot program.

The bill cooper vetoed would have lifted the cap to allow the virtual charters to increase enrollment above 2,592 with SBE permission.

At a recent meeting, some member of the SBE said they were concerned about the proposal to allow the virtual charters to increase their enrollment.

“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,” SBE Vice Chairman Alan Duncan.

Each virtual charter school 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).

Cooper’s veto message only noted the provision to allow the virtual charters to increase their enrollments.

But his veto SB 392, also wiped out several other provisions related to charter school governance.

If it had become law, SB 392 would have given the State Superintendent the authority to approve charter school facility bonds.

Charters seeking approval to issue private activity bonds would have been able to bypass local governments, which currently 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 loan 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 have been harmed by an expansion of charters in the county.

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

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.

Currently, the SBE has 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 are 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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Governor Cooper vetoes bill to allow low-performing virtual charter schools to increase enrollment