Another State Says Yes to Virtual Charter Schools, but with Restrictions
North Carolina’s SB8 (2011) significantly revised charter school law, but it did not specifically address the creation and operation of virtual charter schools. After more than a year of controversy and confusion, the North Carolina State Board of Education (SBE) approved policy on the procedures and operation of virtual charter schools (115C-238.29A). In January, the SBE adopted policy that requires virtual charters to adhere to a significantly lower funding formula than brick-and-mortar schools, and maintain high graduation rates and low withdrawal rates. Funding for virtual charters will be based on the same funding amount as eight, full-year courses ($438 per course) at the NC Virtual Public School, or $3,504. The state funding amount per pupil for brick-and-mortar schools is about $5,600, although base funding (before local contributions) ranges from $4,000 to $10,000. Virtual charters will not receive any local school funding. Virtual charter schools must:
- Maintain a 50:1 student-to-teacher ratio.
- Keep graduation rates no less than 10% below the state average (about 80% in SY 2012-13) in any two of three years.
- Not have a withdrawal rate higher than 15% in any two out of three years.
- Only enroll students in grades 6-12.
All charters must be submitted to and approved by the SBE and the applicant must "submit a copy of the application to every local education agency (LEA) in North Carolina from which the virtual charter school may attract students." Schools must complete a mandatory planning year, maintain a physical location in the state, and provide face-to-face, synchronous activities; this can include meetings with teachers, educational field trips, virtual field trips, conferencing sessions, or "asynchronous offline work assigned by the teacher of record."
As with Massachusetts (see our blog post on the new law here), we have concerns about the funding level, which is less than one-third of the national average funding for brick-and-mortar students. The funding level is based on the cost to deliver one supplemental course at NCVPS, and does not take into consideration the support services delivered by all schools – whether brick-and-mortar or online – that contribute to a student’s success.
In addition, virtual schools often see higher student withdrawal rates than brick-and-mortar schools (see our post and the link to Characteristics of Colorado Online Learners ), as often these schools are meeting a temporary need for students who are struggling with a challenge at home or an illness. In the Colorado report, students who attended multiple schools during their academic careers perform worse academically , on average, than students who have attended fewer schools (likely due to the risk factors that drive the mobility in the first place), so the issue is an important one to monitor. However, we are not sure that mandating a maximum withdrawal rate is the right policy path to choose, especially if the state is not willing to fund the support services that can help those students succeed.
For detailed information regarding the history of virtual charters in North Carolina and SB8 see Keeping Pace with K-12 Online and Blended Learning 2012, page 132.