NC bill would allow virtual charter schools to stay open until 2027
North Carolina’s two popular but underperforming charter schools would be allowed to remain open for at least the next five years under legislation passed by the State House on Thursday.
The NC Virtual Academy and NC Cyber Academy only have state approval to remain open through the end of the 2022-23 school year. But under legislation approved by a 73-22 vote, they would be granted charters until the 2026-27 school year, when they could seek renewal for up to 10 more years.
Supporters said extending the life of both schools will provide more educational options for North Carolina families.
“We need to provide opportunities for students to learn in the way that best suits them, best fits their home circumstances,” said Rep. David Willis, a Republican from Union County. “Not all kids are designed to be in a classroom sitting there for several hours a day in the same kind of system that we’ve had for 30 years.”
But some lawmakers have questioned granting the schools permanent status.
“The best education in my opinion, humbly submissive, is an education you get when … your back is on the seat and the teacher is in front and you mingle and mingle with your fellow students,” Rep. Abe said. Jones, a Democrat from Wake County. “You go to recess with your mates and you go to lunch with your mates and you make teams with your mates, and that’s not it.
“The idea of establishing this permanently quickly troubles me greatly.”
Senate Bill 671 returns to the Senate to see if it supports the changes made by the House.
Schools have been underperforming
Charter schools are taxpayer-funded schools that are exempt from some of the rules that traditional public schools must follow. In addition to physical charter schools, state lawmakers had required the State Board of Education to approve two virtual charters.
Both virtual schools opened in 2015 as part of what was originally intended to be a four-year pilot program. The schools were rated as underperforming by the state for each of their first four years. Ratings were not given by the state in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the poor academic performance of both schools, state lawmakers have shown their support by extending the pilot until 2023. School leaders have argued that many of their students have come to them after struggling in traditional public schools.
Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincoln County Republican, spoke at the NC Virtual Academy graduation ceremony in Durham on Thursday. It was the first time many students had met their classmates in person.
“I was able to speak with many parents and many graduates before the ceremony,” Saine said during Thursday’s House debate. “While it’s still not perfect in every way, as we move forward in education, it was really interesting to hear those people on the ground living it, learning it, and innovating in the process.”
Interest in both virtual charter schools has skyrocketed during the pandemic. State lawmakers passed legislation in 2020 to allow them to exceed their state’s enrollment caps.
Under the new legislation, the state would end their status as pilots. They would instead become regular charters with five-year charters that they could apply to renew in 2027 with the State Board of Education.
Representative Jeffrey Elmore, a Republican from Wilkes County, said the legislation would ensure that students can have access to a virtual option even if their county no longer offers one. School districts across the state have been phasing out the remote options they offered during the pandemic.
The rest of the bill deals with distance education. Provisions include:
▪ Allow schools to continue using distance learning for snow days and other emergencies.
▪ Allow schools that were providing full-time distance education in the 2021-22 school year to continue to do so for the 2022-23 school year.
▪ Beginning in the 2023-24 school year, allow school districts to establish remote academies that meet certain requirements.
▪ Allow new and existing charter schools to apply to become remote academies.
Jones, the lawmaker, complained that the changes were only unveiled at Wednesday’s house rules committee meeting, when lawmakers rewrote an unrelated education bill.
Elmore said that ideally they would have presented the articles sooner. But he said time was running out because of the short session, which lawmakers hope to complete by July 1.
Elmore said the bill will build on what has been learned about virtual teaching during the pandemic.
“What COVID has shown us is that the role of virtual education is going to be permanent from now on with our educational offerings,” Elmore said. “Since this is true, we need to put parameters in place to ensure that students receive the best education possible.”