Politics & Government

NC virtual charter schools are low performing. But one school can still add students.

The State Board of Education is only allowing one of North Carolina’s two virtual charter schools to add more students this fall. But state lawmakers could step in to help both schools.

Currently, the state’s two online charter schools can only have up to 2,592 students each unless they get a waiver from the state board. The board voted Friday to let N.C. Virtual Academy grow by 20% this year. But the board rejected the request from N.C. Cyber Academy, originally called N.C. Connections Academy, because it’s going through a management change.

The board almost rejected requests from both schools, which are graded as low performing under the state’s school performance system. While the vote on the Cyber Academy was unanimous, the board split 4-3 to back the Virtual Academy’s request.

“I would hope that they would focus on getting to a place first of meeting and exceeding expectations with the students they have without the added burden of having to take on a number of additional students,” board vice chairman Alan Duncan said of the Virtual Academy’s request.

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 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. State lawmakers are looking at addressing the cap now.

One bill passed by the Senate would allow both schools to annually grow by 20%. The House Education Committee backed a different bill that would allow both virtual schools to reach up to 3,000 students by 2023.

State lawmakers have pointed to how both virtual schools have waiting lists as reasons why they should be allowed to add more students.

The N.C. Charter Schools Advisory Board unanimously recommended against the Cyber Academy’s expansion request. State board member Amy White said the school can come back next year.

The advisory board had recommended approval of the Virtual Academy’s request. David Machado, director of the state Office of Charter Schools, noted that brick-and-mortar charter schools that have similar scores as the Virtual Academy are allowed under state law to grow by 20% a year.

“CSAB felt like this school should be treated like any other charter school and be allowed to grow that 20%,” Machado said.

State board votes are rarely that close. JB Buxton, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, Olivia Oxendine and White voted for the Virtual Academy’s request. Jill Camnitz, Eric Davis and Duncan voted no.

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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.