Politics & Government

NC lawmakers let virtual charter schools add more students despite low test scores

North Carolina lawmakers are lifting student enrollment caps on the state’s popular but low-performing virtual charter schools.

The state Senate voted 28-14 on Tuesday to join the House in passing legislation that allows the state’s two virtual charters to grow their enrollment by 20% a year. Senate Bill 392 lifts the restriction that had capped the enrollment at the N.C. Virtual Academy and the N.C. Cyber Academy to 2,592 students each.

There was no debate Tuesday in the Senate. But on Thursday, some House lawmakers questioned allowing the schools to grow when they’ve both been labeled as low-performing each year under the state’s testing system since they opened.

Supporters said it’s unfair to hold the grades against the schools because they attract “challenging students” who families feel will benefit from an online school over a brick-and-mortar school.

“To remove this option for students by capping the growth I think does a disservice to those challenging students and those families with challenging students,” said Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican.

The bill now goes to Gov. Roy Cooper.

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded schools that are exempt from some of the rules that traditional public schools must follow. In addition to the brick-and-mortar charter schools, state lawmakers required the State Board of Education to approve two virtual charters.

Both virtual schools opened in 2015 in what was originally supposed to be a four-year pilot program. Despite the poor academic results of both schools, state lawmakers showed their support by extending the pilot program to 2023.

But when the pilot was extended, lawmakers didn’t include the option for the schools to expand past the cap of 2,592 students set when the program was first created.

The state board voted in June to allow a one-year waiver of the enrollment cap for the Virtual Academy. But the board rejected the request from the Cyber Academy because it’s undergoing a management change that’s requiring it to report back monthly to the Charter Schools Advisory Board.

Under the legislation, only the Virtual Academy would be able to immediately take advantage of the new enrollment rules. The Cyber Academy would need to get state board approval to add students until it’s no longer undergoing monthly monitoring by the advisory board.

Last week, Rep. Graig Meyer, a Chapel Hill Democrat, unsuccessfully tried to amend the bill to require virtual charters to have at least a C grade under the state’s school performance grading system to be able to add students after this year. Both schools have gotten D grades each year since they opened.

“It just creates an incentive for these schools to increase their performance up to the level of a C,” Meyer said. “If they do that they can continue to add enrollment.”

But Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, a Wilkes County Republican, said Meyer’s proposal was “premature” since the virtual schools are still a pilot program.

“We can continue to evaluate this until the end of the pilot and if we see that this is a continuous problem we can eliminate the pilot,” he said.

In addition to the enrollment changes, the bill makes several other charter school changes including:

Allows state Superintendent Mark Johnson to approve bonds to finance a charter school facility;

Requires the state board to give a 10-year renewal to a charter school if its test scores are at least within 5 percentage points of the school district where it’s physically located;

Requires background checks for members of the board of directors of charter schools.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.