The head of a controversial virtual charter school wants North Carolina lawmakers to funnel more cash into the program and clear operations beyond the 2019 sunset of its four-year pilot program, despite lagging test scores and a host of concerns about similar programs nationwide.
“There are hundreds and thousands of kids and teachers that will benefit from our model,” Nathan Currie, superintendent at N.C. Connections Academy, told a committee of influential state lawmakers Tuesday, one day after making a similar pitch to a state charter school oversight panel.
Legislators took no action Tuesday, although the committee may take up the pilot program at an undetermined point in the future, Rep. Linda Johnson, a Cabarrus County Republican and the committee’s co-chair, said.
Connections Academy and its counterpart in the pilot program, N.C. Virtual Academy, are in their third year of operations. Currie said this week that uncertainty about his school’s future is affecting the families it serves.
“We have families that want to know if the school will be there next year,” he said. “It’s really not helping our enrollment.”
Currie’s request comes one year before members of the State Board of Education are expected to review the contentious virtual charter pilot and its 2019 ending date. However, the GOP-controlled legislature, which has been generally supportive of the program, could act before then.
“Nothing’s perfect and you probably have some bugs to work out, but I’d like to see some kind of extension,” Rep. Larry Pittman, a Cabarrus County Republican who serves as an advisory member of the committee, told virtual charters leaders Tuesday.
Virtual charter leaders are also pushing state legislators to reconsider allocations for the program, which launched in 2015. Today, the schools receive roughly the same funding as typical, “brick-and-mortar” charters, although they are not entitled to per-pupil cash designated for low-wealth and small counties.
State law also caps local funding for virtual charters at $790 per student. Depending on the district in which the student resides, that may be more or less than the local dollars spent on each pupil. Currie said this week that his program often loses out when it comes to students hailing from the state’s largest school systems in Wake and Mecklenburg counties.
And, while virtual charters are generally thought to be less expensive because students can take all of their classes online rather than in a traditional school facility, Currie said this week that he believes virtual programs have roughly the same costs.
State moves to reform either the funding model or lift the schools’ pilot status would likely spur fierce criticism from some public school advocates.
Indeed, Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of N.C., a nonpartisan research and policy group in Raleigh, said lawmakers should first develop a fair means of assessing performance in the two online schools, which serve about 4,000 K-12 students hailing from most of the state’s 100 counties.
Given their far-flung enrollment, experts say it’s vexing to make easy comparisons between test scores in any one North Carolina school district and the virtual charters.
“The virtual charter schools are an experiment,” said Poston. “That’s why it was set up as a pilot. It’s certainly very premature to talk about making it permanent without any sort of formal evaluation of how they’re doing.”
Poston added that legislators should also reject calls to dispatch more public cash to the online schools. “Our public schools are underfunded,” he said. “The last thing we need to do is shift more funds away from these schools into these for-profit schemes.”
Virtual charter supporters say the model provides an alternative to students who struggle in traditional schools because of scheduling conflicts or bullying.
Bridget Phifer, a Connections Academy parent and chair of the school’s board of directors, says the school was essential to her daughter when her father was hospitalized for a time, allowing Phifer’s daughter to spend time every day at the hospital and still complete her schoolwork.
“They are able to thrive in this environment because they don’t have to deal with some of the issues you find in a brick and mortar establishment,” said Phifer.
But many K-12 researchers and public school advocates like Poston have been openly critical of the virtual charter model, pointing to dismal academic results and soaring dropout rates in states across the country. A 2015 Stanford University study reported serious deficiencies in student performance nationwide in like programs.
North Carolina’s two virtual charters, both of which earned “D” overall grades in school performance last year and did not meet growth expectations, have faced similar struggles in their first two years.
N.C. Connections Academy—which is affiliated with international, for-profit corporation Pearson—reported that its reading scores ticked up from a “C” to a “B” last year, while its math score rose from an “F” to a “D.”
Connections Academy fared somewhat better than Virtual Academy, which is operated by Virginia-based, for-profit K-12 Inc., a company that’s been troubled by claims of financial malfeasance and academic failings in other states. Virtual Academy reported a “C” in reading and an “F” in math in each of the last two school years.
Meanwhile, a consultant with the state’s charter office told legislators Tuesday that the virtual schools produced mixed results in different student subgroups.
Among Asian, African-American and Hispanic students, Connections Academy’s performance was “comparable” to the state average, meaning it was within five percentage points, according to Stephanie Clark of the state’s Office of Charter Schools. But white students and students of two or more races were more than 11 points back.
And in Virtual Academy, every subgroup, with the exception of Hispanic students, trailed the state by 10 or more percentage points.
“We had concerns about the virtual charter model based on abysmal results in other states,” said Poston. “And we were skeptical that it would be different in North Carolina. So far, the preliminary results aren’t any different. The student outcomes at both schools are poor.”
School heads acknowledge academic issues in the online programs, but they say their enrollment draws heavily from low-income families and children with special needs, both groups that tend to lag their peers in the classroom.
They say intensified professional development, coupled with outreach to parents and students, is yielding better results.
“We didn’t do so well in math,” said Currie. “We were not proud, so we rolled up our sleeves, we made some improvements, and we took that “F” to a “D.”
Joel Medley, head of school at Virtual Academy, said this week that there are “challenges and frustrations” to virtual charter work, but he says the school provides an option for students in dozens of primarily rural counties that would otherwise rely solely on traditional public schools.
“We know we have these challenges coming in, but we don’t use them as excuses,” added Medley.
Supporters also point to high parent satisfaction rates, as well as recent tide-turning shifts in their withdrawal rates, which once exceeded 30 percent but plunged after state legislators approved a new means for calculating withdrawals that excluded most.
Virtual charter leaders said the change allowed for a more accurate count of their “transient” student base, but not everyone is happy with the new formula.
Poston called the new withdrawal count an “egregious” example of the cozy relationship between some state legislators and virtual charter lobbyists.
“That’s a bit like saying the Tar Heel football team would be undefeated this year if you excluded all the points scored against them in the first, second and third quarters,” said Poston.
Bill Cobey is the chairman of the State Board of Education, a board of gubernatorial appointees that’s expected to assess the pilot program’s performance next year. This week, Cobey said he’s encouraged by improvements in the virtual charter schools, but he stopped short of saying that it was time for the board to extend the program beyond 2019.
“My bottom line is I see improvement and that’s what I’ve been looking for,” said Cobey. “I think virtual education is definitely a part of our future.”
For the time being, Cobey said his board will likely take counsel from its Charter School Advisory Board before considering any changes to the virtual school program.