Politics & Government

NC’s 2 virtual charters are low performing. But they could be allowed to get more students.

North Carolina’s two virtual charter schools have been labeled low-performing since they opened, but some state lawmakers want to let them add more students.

The N.C. Senate voted 25-18 on Wednesday to lift the enrollment cap of 2,592 students at each virtual charter, letting them grow by 20 percent a year. Supporters argued that the virtual charters should be allowed to accept the many students who want to attend even though the schools aren’t performing as well as hoped.

“There may be concerns about how curriculum is being performed or the students that have enrolled in a virtual school that may not be the best learning environment for them,” said Sen. Ralph Hise, a Spruce Pine Republican. “But we’re going to say we’re not going to have a program because some students who it wasn’t their best learning environment chose it?

“How about we leave it to parents to make the choice about what’s the best environment for their children and give options which include virtual education for them to choose.”

But critics questioned allowing the schools, which each have more than 2,000 students, to add more when they are not performing well under the state’s school grading system. Both online schools have received D grades for their academic performance for the past three years and are on the state’s list of “continually low-performing schools.”

“I believe a better name for this bill would be the rewarding failure act, and that’s because this bill rewards low-performing virtual charter schools,” said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Raleigh Democrat.

Senate Bill 522 now goes to the state House.

But bill critics did get one thing they wanted on Wednesday. A section allowing county governments to spend capital dollars on building and renovating facilities for charter schools was removed from the legislation.

Sen. Rick Horner, a Nash County Republican, said opponents should be satisfied that they got the county funding section dropped.

The vote was largely along party lines with no Republican voting no and only one Democrat voting yes.

“The art of lawmaking is compared to making sausage,” Horner said. “Enjoy your biscuit and vote for this bill. This is a good bill now.”

Both N.C. Connections Academy and N.C. Virtual Academy opened in 2015 in what was originally supposed to be a four-year pilot program ordered by state lawmakers. Both have been managed by big companies with Pearson managing Connections and K12 running the the Virtual Academy.

The local board of Connections is seeking state permission to break ties with Pearson. They’re involved in a messy legal fight that has been likened to a divorce by the N.C. Charter Schools Advisory Board, which reluctantly voted Monday to recommend that they be allowed to end their relationship.

Despite the poor academic results, state lawmakers showed their support for the two schools last summer by extending the pilot program to 2023.

“I simply believe that it is not good public policy for us to send our children to programs that have been deemed completely ineffective,” Chaudhuri said.

But Sen. Jerry Tillman, an Archdale Republican and one of the bill’s primary sponsors, defended the performance of the two virtual charters.

“If you compare virtual charter schools with virtual public schools, you’ll find the charter schools hold up very well indeed,” he said.

Sen. Todd Jackson, a Union County Republican, brought up meeting a student who enrolled in a virtual school because of issues such as bullying at a traditional school. He said the student has gone from getting D’s and F’s to B’s and C’s now.

“Let’s support education as opposed to systems and allow parents to have the choice as to what’s best for their families,” he said.

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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.