by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
Last week, the NC Office of Charter Schools asked the members of the State Board of Education to grant a one-year enrollment increase to meet parental demand for full-time online charter schools. Currently, nearly 9,000 students remain on waitlists for seats at North Carolina’s two virtual charter schools, the NC Virtual Academy and the NC Cyber Academy. With the start of the school year just days away and district reopening plans in disarray, it is critical that state education officials immediately lift the enrollment cap on these schools.
Due to chicanery at the state board level that subverted the conventional approval process, the General Assembly created the virtual charter school pilot program in 2014, and three years later, lawmakers extended the pilot to the 2022-23 school year. The 2014 legislation capped enrollment at 2,592 students by the fourth year of the pilot program. Still, a provision in the law permits the State Board of Education to waive the maximum student enrollment threshold beginning in the fourth year of the school’s operation if members believe that “doing so would be in the best interest of North Carolina students.” And in 2019, the State Board of Education granted a request by NC Virtual Academy to increase its enrollment to 2,945 students.
By April 2020, NC Virtual Academy had received 3,100 applications for 403 available seats, and the school had asked members of the State Board of Education to allow it to maintain its 2019 enrollment for the upcoming school year. But demand for seats continued to surge, as parents sought refuge from the makeshift school reopening plans formulated by school districts. As of early August, NC Virtual Academy had a waitlist of 6,337, while the NC Cyber Academy had 2,571 students seeking seats. While waitlists in regions with urban and suburban counties outnumber those without large population centers, there is a strong demand for virtual charter school seats at the school in every region of the state. Thousands of parents in underserved rural communities hope that the State Board of Education will permit their children to enroll in an online school of choice.
At the August meeting of the State Board of Education, the Office of Charter Schools asked board members to consider increasing the cap on the two virtual charter schools further. Some members of the board demurred, siding with opponents of our state’s two virtual charter schools who complain that the State Board of Education should not increase enrollment allowances for schools that have not performed well in the past. Both virtual charter schools earned D grades from the much-maligned school performance grade system.
Nevertheless, both virtual charters have shown signs of progress. For example, data from the superb NWEA MAP assessment, a battery of standardized tests administered voluntarily, indicates that NC Virtual Academy students at all grade levels are posting sizable gains in reading and math. Graduation rates and ACT scores in math, English, reading, and writing are on the rise.
Moreover, it’s hypocritical to maintain an enrollment cap on virtual charters but allow low-performing districts to offer full-time remote learning without enrollment limits. All eight school districts identified as low-performing districts in 2018-19 (i.e., districts where greater than 50% of schools identified as low-performing) will launch full-time remote learning experiments this fall. Edgecombe, Martin, Nash-Rocky Mount, Northampton, Robeson, Scotland, Tyrell, and Weldon City boards of education have opted for the full-time remote learning option allowed under Gov. Cooper’s reopening order, even though they have very limited experience operating such a program. These districts have a combined enrollment exceeding 52,500 students. If state education officials are comfortable allowing tens of thousands of students in low-performing districts to access a full-time remote learning option, then they should have no reservations about granting a few thousand additional seats to two virtual charter schools that have robust technological infrastructures and experienced educators who are trained to teach in an online environment.
In a year that parents are seeking a full-time online charter school option for their children, raising the enrollment cap for North Carolina’s two virtual charter schools is in the best interest of North Carolina families.