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N.C. education board won’t expand virtual charter enrollment

RALEIGH, N.C.

A closely divided North Carolina Board of Education has refused to let two statewide virtual charter schools expand their enrollment this year to meet higher demand for online instruction with the COVID-19 pandemic.

A majority of board members voted on Friday against the proposal, recommended earlier in the week by an advisory panel, to allow 3,800 more students combined at the North Carolina Virtual Academy and N.C. Cyber Academy.

Opponents of the idea on the board cited the schools’ low academic performance, and that by adding enrollment money would be siphoned from school districts, The News & Observer of Raleigh reported.

“I want to be sure that in order to provide some options for some students who don’t have them right now that we make sure we don’t send negative ripples all the way across the state and end up affecting a large number of students negatively by trying to help the students that we’re talking about,” board member Jill Camnitz said.

In 2015, the General Assembly mandated the creation of the two virtual schools. They were labeled low-performing by the state during their first four years. Schools won’t be graded for the past year due to the pandemic.

Still, demand for virtual lessons by parents worried about in-person instruction this year is soaring. More than half of the enrollment in the Wake County public schools signed up for its Virtual Academy program. The virtual charter schools had 5,000 students last school year and have 9,500 students on their waiting lists.

Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a board member, said the virtual charters have a “proven model” compared to other schools or districts establishing virtual programs for the first time.

“There’s thousands of parents of students out there just looking for an option in the midst of an emergency,” Forest said. “We’ve been trying to find options for parents and I’m not sure why this one is so controversial.”

Forest modified the recommendation of the advisory board to give enrollment preference to students lacking a computer or internet access at home and who don’t otherwise have a full-time virtual school option.

In the 7-5 vote, board members appointed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, along with Chairman Eric Davis — initially appointed to the board by then-Republican Gov. Pat McCrory — voted against expansion.

Cooper vetoed a bill last year that would have allowed lifted enrollment caps on the virtual charter schools, citing their poor academic performance.

Public school districts begin classes on Monday. Based on district decisions, about two-thirds of the state’s 1.5 million K-12 students will begin the year using remote instruction.


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