House moves bill to remove pilot status from state’s virtual charter schools

North Carolina’s two virtual charter schools would become permanent fixtures on the state’s school choice landscape if a bill approved by the House on Thursday becomes law.

Senate Bill 671 to remove the pilot status from N.C. Cyber Academy (NCCA) and N.C. Virtual Academy (NCVA) was approved on a 72-23 vote, and was returned to the Senate. The schools would be granted five-year charters, then be eligible to apply for a 10-year renewal after the 2026-27 school year.

Rep. Jeffrey Elmore

“What we are doing with this, is we’re putting them in the rotation to be at the same standards as the other charter schools,” said Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, a Wilkes County Republican. “It ends the pilot status.”

The two charters provide remote learning to thousands of students across the state. Making them permanent will provide parents and students in small districts with remote learning options, Elmore said.

The proposed law would allow school districts to create or continue remote academies permitted during the pandemic. Smaller districts don’t have the resources to create such academies, Elmore said.

Several lawmakers complained that House members didn’t have enough time to “digest” the bill. The bill is dated June 8. Some lawmakers said they saw it for the first time Thursday.

Rep. Abe Jones

“I can’t digest it that fast,” Rep. Abe Jones, a Wake County Democrat said.

Elmore said the state’s remote learning efforts have been like the “wild, wild west” with districts doing “whatever, however, whenever” to provide students with virtual learning opportunities.

SB 671, Elmore said, will put parameters around remote learning to ensure students receive quality instruction.

If the bill becomes law, districts, for example, could continue to provide remote learning when inclement weather forces schools to close. And beginning in the 2023-24 school year, districts could establish permanent remote academies to accommodate students and parents who believe remote learning is best for their family’s situation.

The bill also repeals the sunset clause permitting limited virtual instruction during emergency conditions and allows schools that provided virtual instruction this year to provide it next year.

The state’s two virtual charter schools have been widely criticized for their poor academic performance. Both schools have earned school performance letter grades of “D” every year since opening for the 2015-16 school year. Lawmakers waived letter grade requirements for the 2019-2020 school year because schools closed in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pilot program was created in 2015. It was supposed to end after the 2018-19 school year. But lawmakers extended them through the 2022-23 and increased their enrollment caps. Both schools have claimed to have long waiting lists.

On Thursday, Jones argued that children learn best in traditional school settings.

“The best education, in my opinion, humbly submitted, is the education that you get when you mix and mingle and sit with your backside in the seat with the teacher up front and you mix and mingle with your fellow students,” Jones said.

Rep. Larry Pittman, a Republican from Cabarrus County, agreed with Jones. He said the bill feels rushed.

“I do have some concerns about what happened the last couple of years,” Pittman said. “When schools got shut down and everything, we all know, whether you want to admit it or not, that education suffered during this virtual stuff.”

Rep. David Willis, a Union County Republican, said some students learn better remotely.

“We’ve got to have opportunities for students to learn the way that fits them best, that fit their family situation best,” Willis said. “Not all children are designed to be in a classroom, sitting there for several hours a day in that same type of system that we’ve had for 30 years.”

Rep. Jay Adams, a Catawba County Republican, said the state must continue to improve its virtual school offerings.

“We did not have an opportunity to properly develop it [remote learning] during the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we should let it go,” Adams said. “I think this bill is a good beginning point for us to continue the development of remote learning.”

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