Education advocates are calling the state’s new virtual charter schools policy “a step in the right direction,” but still caution that increased accountability and oversight are necessary to ensure that students are getting a sound basic education.
Thursday, the North Carolina State Board of Education passed the state’s first policy focused solely on regulating virtual charter schools. While the policy provides much-needed guidance on the establishment of virtual charter schools in the state, education watchdog groups still have serious concerns about the ability of virtual charter schools to provide all students — including at-risk student — a constitutionally-required sound basic education.
“The state claims it must cut funding for public schools,” said Chris Hill, Director of the Justice Center’s Education and Law Project. “We are extremely concerned about spending public dollars to fund virtual charter schools that research has not shown to be effective for elementary and secondary students.”
Research has not demonstrated that full-time virtual schools are an adequate replacement for traditional face-to-face teaching and learning. The Justice Center does, however, support the SBE’s efforts to increase oversight over, and the accountability of, virtual charter schools that operate in the state in order to ensure that all students receive a sound basic education.
“Short of banning the establishment of virtual charter schools in the state until research shows that virtual schools actually work, the SBE’s policy is a step in the right direction to ensure virtual charter schools will be accountable for providing all students the sound basic education guaranteed under the state Constitution,” said Christine Bischoff, an attorney in the Justice Center’s Education and Law Project.
Under the new policy, virtual charter schools may only educate students in grades 6 through 12, and the student-to-teacher ratio cannot exceed 50 to 1 per class. These schools will receive the same funding as a full-year course in the NC Virtual Public School for eight courses per student. Based on the current cost of a full-year course in the NC Virtual Public School, a virtual school would receive about $3,500 per student. The virtual school will not receive local funds to operate.
In response to growing concerns about research from virtual charter schools in other states showing that virtual schools have low graduation rates and high student withdrawal rates, the new SBE policy requires that virtual charter schools must meet the following performance standards or the charter that allows the school to operate may be revoked or not renewed:
- The graduation rate must be no less than 10% below the overall state average, which is currently 80%, for any two out of three consecutive years
- The student withdrawal rate may not be higher than 15% for any two out of three consecutive years
As part of the application process, virtual charter school applicants must provide a detailed explanation about how the proposed virtual school will assist at-risk students who are not succeeding academically, and how the school will meet the academic needs of English Language Learner students and students with disabilities.
The application also requires extensive details about the virtual charter school’s educational mission, strategies for catering teacher instruction to the virtual environment, intervention procedures for struggling students, and disciplinary procedures. Additionally, the application must include information on the academic and financial track record of the virtual school vendor that the school has contracted with to provide educational services.
Many of these issues were raised in the Justice Center’s friend of the court brief submitted last June in a lawsuit brought by N.C. Learns, Inc., a non-profit corporation that wanted to run the state’s first virtual charter school. The Justice Center’s brief explained that full-time, virtual schools raise many difficult issues and problems that traditional brick-and-mortar schools do not face, including those mentioned above, and that states across the country are struggling to address these issues. The brief also raised serious concerns about the quality and effectiveness of schools run by K12, Inc., which is the for-profit vendor of education products and services selected by NC Learns, Inc.