That was the question before the General Assembly during the recent House Budget debate, as legislators argued whether to pull the plug on virtual charter schools. Virtual charters, authorized as part of the 2014 budget, are for-profit, online schools. With grim results in other states, it’s unclear why North Carolina’s policymakers are pushing us down the same path.
The educational results are truly grim. The most careful, comprehensive study of virtual charter schools, from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, found that virtual charter students achieved the equivalent of 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days of learning in reading than students in traditional public schools. In the words of lead researcher Margaret Raymond, the math results are “literally as if the kid did not go to school for an entire year.” Not surprisingly, the average graduation rate at online schools is 40%, less than half the national average graduation rate of 82%.
What virtual charter schools lack in educational achievement, they more than make up for when it comes to fraud and abuse. (See, for example, this story from last fall about K12, Inc., one of the main lobbying forces behind North Carolina’s virtual charter experiment).
A number of schools have been found guilty of fraudulently inflating attendance figures in order to rake in state and local funding that they otherwise would not have been entitled to. A virtual charter in Tennessee deleted low student grades to avoid state sanctions, while another virtual charter in Idaho outsourced the grading of student work to India. Virtual charters in multiple states have failed to provide required services to children with disabilities.
North Carolina’s virtual charter laws do nothing to protect us from similar results. Our virtual charter funding model pays on the basis of enrollment, rather than student success. Years of budget cuts at the Department of the Public Instruction have left the state unable to accurately verify virtual charter enrollment figures. Furthermore, North Carolina’s virtual charter laws allow for placement of corporate insiders in key decision-making positions, and fail to include any independent evaluation of student results. The early indications are not good, as students who have enrolled in North Carolina’s virtual charter schools are withdrawing at alarming rates.
Other states and organizations are turning against virtual charters. Both Delaware and Tennessee have pulled the plug on their virtual charters. Former advocates for virtual charters, such as the Walton Family Foundation, are now opponents. Most states continue to prohibit virtual charters from operating.
The North Carolina House of Representatives has instead chosen to double down on virtual charter schools, loosening the already lax requirements on student withdrawal rates. Previously virtual charters had to retain just 75% of their students. The House budget proposal approved by the chamber last week introduced a series of loopholes, rendering the withdrawal requirements virtually meaningless. Representatives Rob Bryan, Craig Horn, and Paul Stam fought back an amendment that would have ended this misguided experiment altogether.
The North Carolina Senate is now working on its budget plan, and can reverse course on this misguided experiment. At a minimum, they could create a funding model that pays on the basis of student success, rather than enrollment, tighten class-size requirements that currently allow one teacher to be responsible for 150 students, and fund meaningful oversight and evaluation. And if they really want to protect North Carolina’s students, they will end this disastrous experiment entirely.
The evidence is in: virtual charters have failed in every state. Now it’s time for sound, logical decisions based on that evidence.
Kris Nordstrom is an Education Policy and Finance Consultant who works with the North Carolina Justice Center’s education and Law Project.