The state’s two virtual charter schools should be shining examples of remote learning. But instead of basking in the glow of high demand, the schools are facing tough questions about their students’ academic performances.
For the fourth consecutive year, NC Cyber Academy and NC Virtual Academy both have performance ratings of “D,” said David Stegall, deputy state superintendent of innovation at a Charter School Advisory Board meeting this week. “It does concern me that they are not high-performing charter schools,” he said.
The charter board met to make a recommendation to the State Board of Education about whether to allow the schools to increase enrollments for one year to accommodate families without a virtual option. The schools have wait lists of nearly 9,500 students looking for a virtual school during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The schools’ “D” letter grades are based on state accountability measures. Test scores account for 80% of the grade and 20% is based on school growth. Neither school has met growth benchmarks since state lawmakers authorized a four-year pilot program in 2015. The General Assembly later extended the virtual charter program for an additional four years through 2022-23.
Despite the schools’ performance, charter advisory board members — some reluctantly — approved the recommendation that would allow the schools to increase enrollments by a combined 3,800 students, albeit with some restrictions.
“I’m not going to keep it from being unanimous, but I have serious hesitation,” said advisory board member Cheryl Turner.
Advisory Board member Steven Walker “enthusiastically” voted in favor of the recommendation. “You know the option that I think a lot of parents wanted was Plan A where they feel comfortable with their kids going back to school,” Walker said. “That option was totally taken off the table and so they’re scrambling to try to find something. They want some stability for their kids, and the students want some stability, too.”
In “Plan A,” Walker was referring to the option that would have allowed students to return to school for in-person instruction with proper social distancing. It was one of three plans Gov. Roy Cooper asked school districts to prepare as they planned for schools to reopen Aug. 17. Cooper directed school districts to reopen under Plan B, a mix of in-person instruction and remote learning. He also gave them the option to use Plan C, which is remote learning only.
Walker noted that the state has several low-performing school districts that will open virtual academies this fall. Those districts include Weldon City Schools and districts in Martin, Nash, Rocky Mount, Northampton, Robeson and Scotland counties that have, he noted, a combined enrollment of 52,000 students.
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, Gov. Cooper’s Republican challenger in the Nov. 3 General Election has endorsed the
enrollment increases. Forest said it’s critical that the state provide remote options for families without them.
“That really is one of our biggest challenges with remote learning now is the fact that we have the haves and the have nots,” Forest said at last week’s state board meeting. “There are so many districts that don’t have any virtual option at all. Some are going to be trying to make it up. They’re going to be trying to do this from scratch when there are folks who know how to do this, how to train teachers and do it in a way that parents can understand.” Note: Steven Walker is Forest’s official designee on the charter board.
A majority of the state’s 1.5 million K-12 students will begin the school year next week learning from home. Students can enroll in the virtual charters under several circumstances if there is no full-time virtual school option in the student’s district; if no spots are available in a district full-time virtual school; or if district is unwilling to provide devices or internet service.
Many of the state’s larger school districts have created virtual academies for families uncomfortable with sending their children back to classrooms for in-person instruction before the coronavirus is under control. State Board of Education member Amy White said last week that students in districts where no full-time virtual school options is available should be given enrollment priority in the virtual charters.
The virtual charters schools’ academic track record came up last week after White introduced a proposal to allow them to increase enrollments for one year to provide families with more choice.
“Performance is an issue,” state board Chairman Eric Davis said. “It’s one thing to have choice, but we’ve got to make sure we’re providing quality choice.”
The state board will consider the charter advisory board’s recommendation, as well as the schools’ enrollment and performance questions, this Friday during an 11:30 a.m. remote meeting. The charter advisory board recommended that enrollment increases would be limited to the number of students each school reported it could accommodate.
NC Cyber Academy has a wait list of 2,888. School leaders said they could add 1,000 students and provide each with a laptop and technical support throughout the school year. The additional students would increase the school’s enrollment to 3,534 students.
The school determined it could would limit the number of new students after talks with school leaders, Superintendent Martez Hill said. “We wanted to be thoughtful and strategic and realistic about the resources that we will need to acquire — not only with regards to teaching services, but with regards to purchasing laptops,” Hill said.
Meanwhile, NC Virtual Academy’s wait list is 6,600 students. The school says it can add 2,800 students. That would push its current enrollment from 2,945 to 5,745 students.
State law governing the virtual charter pilot program allows a maximum ratio of 1 teacher to 50 students for grades K-8 and a ratio of 1-to-150 for students in grades 9-12.
Both schools would have to hire additional teachers to serve the additional students. Some charter advisory board members questioned whether the schools could hire quality teachers and train them on such short notice.
Because school dollars follow students, allowing the two virtual charter schools to increase enrollments means traditional schools will lose funding when students transfer.
If, for example, the charters were each permitted to enroll 1,000 additional students, it could cost school districts more than $11. 4 million in state funding, said Alexis Schauss, chief school business officer at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
That’s based on the $5,712 per student the virtual charters receive in their initial allocation of state funding.
“If the students came from the LEAs [North Carolina refers to school districts as Local Education Agencies of “LEA’s”], we would move the funds from the LEA to the virtual charter school,” Schauss said.
School districts would also see reductions in state funding for any student with Individual Education Plans that moved from the LEA to the virtual charter at a rate of $4,549 per child.
There would also be reductions to federal grants.
Districts provide NCDPI with final enrollment projections in June. State allotments are based on those projections.
“So, we are in August now and many of these school districts are planning for a lot of the unknown,” Schauss said. “There is a lot of stress out there, especially regarding the student numbers, as it does impact the debt funding and of course being 90% personnel costs, it impacts the employment.”
The SBE has agreed to ask state lawmakers to hold public schools financially harmless if they lose students due to the COVID-19 pandemic.