In the space of one day last week, North Carolina’s virtual charter schools saw their controversial plans for overhauling attendance requirements axed, and then, mostly, restored.
Such is the often rapid-fire speed of amendments lobbed in state House and Senate committees as North Carolina lawmakers wrangle over their budget plan this month.
But as House leaders approved their spending plan last week and Senate budget chiefs prepared to unveil their proposals this week, one thing is clear, according to the state’s public school advocates: The virtual charters, besieged by high dropout rates and nationwide concerns about poor academic performance, are bound for relaxed regulations in North Carolina anyway.
The budget wrangling comes amid new figures from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) this week which show the problems seem to only be mounting at both schools in the state’s pilot program.
In its eighth month of operations, N.C. Connections Academy has seen a staggering 32 percent of its enrollment—approximately 631 students—leave. At N.C. Virtual Academy, the school has reported dropouts totaling 559 students, or about 30 percent, of total enrollment.
Both are key figures because the new regulations (beginning on page 24 of the House-approved budget bill), would have raised the allowed dropout rates in the state’s virtual charters from 25 to 35 percent. However, an amendment last week from Rep. James Langdon, a Republican from Johnston County, has, at least temporarily, taken that provision off the table. It’s unclear whether Senate leaders will re-install the language into their budget plan.
Additional proposals which survived House budget negotiations would also exclude a number of dropouts from being counted among withdrawals, including students who relocate, leave for personal, family or medical reasons and, most controversially, leave within the first 30 days after enrolling.
Education advocates say there’s little justification for the latter provision, which helps to partially assuage the problem of high dropout rates among students shortly after they enter virtual charter programs nationwide.
“There are far too many questions about their track record in other states, combined with how new these schools are to North Carolina, to already be proposing ways to make them less accountable,” says Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of N.C., a nonpartisan, school policy group in Raleigh.
In addition to the high dropout rates, virtual charters nationwide have been dogged by complaints of poor academic performance. A Stanford University study last fall found that virtual charter pupils lag their peers in traditional, brick-and-mortar schools by as much as a full academic year.
And while leaders at Connections Academy and Virtual Academy could not be reached for comment for this story, DPI Director of School Business Administration Alexis Schauss says both schools are disputing the unflattering numbers, pointing out that state law already allows exclusions for students who indicate upfront that they intend to join the virtual program for a finite period of time.
Schauss provided the example of a student who is bed-ridden for a semester and then returns to their traditional school afterwards. She said the state does not keep track of this count for such students, so it’s unclear if or when any penalties from the state would kick in for the virtual charters despite the startling numbers in this month’s report.
The percentages would indicate a clear decline for the schools—which were taking in a combined $14.5 million in public funds this year—since Policy Watch reported in March that both schools had apparently surpassed the state-mandated, 25 percent-threshold, although the schools later contested the accuracy of those figures before the State Board of Education.
The eased regulations surfaced in budget talks weeks after those public clashes with DPI staff.
Langdon, who did not respond to Policy Watch interview requests, also pushed through a budget amendment last week to cut the schools’ requested exclusions from the dropout count, but they were restored later in the day by Rep. Rob Bryan, an influential Republican from Mecklenburg County who sits on the House Education Committee.
Virtual charter proponents such as Bryan did not respond to requests for interviews, but Bill Cobey, chairman of the State Board of Education, tells Policy Watch that the virtual charter provisions tucked into the budget bill stemmed from direct conversations between virtual charter operators and lawmakers.
“It’s their baby,” said Cobey. “They want to see how it turns out.”
Cobey, a Republican appointee of Gov. Pat McCrory, added that he’s “not overly concerned” about the withdrawal rates at this point.
“I’m most curious about what happens in the second year,” said Cobey. “From all I’ve heard and read, initially when you have virtual charters, you have quite a few home-schoolers opt in. When they find out it’s more structured than being a home-schooler, quite a few parents and children don’t find it that appealing.”
Cobey urged North Carolinians to be patient with the programs, at least until year two.
“I want it to be successful,” he said. “I don’t want to be part of anything that fails, but I don’t know what success looks like at this point.”
But some education experts aren’t convinced.
Leanne Winner, director of governmental relations for the N.C. School Boards Association, which represents local boards in Raleigh, says her organization has major concerns with the virtual charter programs and the new regulations being discussed in the General Assembly.
“It should be the policy of the state of North Carolina to require schools such as these to counsel families whether the model is likely to be a good educational fit or not,” said Winner.
“It should also be incumbent upon the schools to provide accurate information to families about the challenges associated with the virtual charter model. This exclusion provides the exact opposite incentive for these for-profit companies that are running these schools. “
Matt Ellinwood, Director of the Education & Law Project at the North Carolina Justice Center (the parent organization of N.C. Policy Watch), pointed out the state has a history of overhauling standards when the virtual schools fail to meet a benchmark.
Last year, Policy Watch reported that state officials, at the behest of the virtual programs, agreed to nix daily attendance reporting requirements, meaning schools would only lose state funding if a student failed to show activity for ten consecutive days.
“The State Board of Education was aware of the abysmal educational outcomes of virtual charter schools in other states when they approved the state’s two virtual charters,” Ellinwood said.
“They promised that things would be different in North Carolina. Unfortunately, the only difference is that North Carolina’s virtual charter schools are even less accountable than those that have struggled in other states. Instead of raising standards for these highly questionable schools, the restrictions found in the House budget lower the bar even further.”
It’s because of concerns like these that Poston says North Carolinians should be wary of virtual charters, particularly given the moves in the legislature in recent weeks to ease restrictions for the troubled programs.
“Certainly this provision runs counter to where we think the General Assembly ought to go in terms of accountability and transparency when it comes to virtual charter schools.”