Virtual Charter Schools Earn a Failing Grade

Despite guiding principles from the State Board of Education, virtual charter schools have not met academic expectations.

In 2011, a company known as North Carolina Virtual Academy (NCVA) sought a charter from the Cabarrus County Board of Education to create the first virtual charter school in North Carolina.  The charter request was approved by the Board and was then sent to the State Board of Education for approval.  The State Board, whose approval is required (pdf) for any new public school, refused to grant the charter for policy reasons.

The State Board of Education halted the consideration of any petitions to create a virtual charter school while its E-Learning Commission gathered and considered all facts related to virtual education.  An administrative law judge who heard NCVA’s case against the State Board of Education determined that, because the Board of Education failed to comment in any way on NCVA’s petition within a reasonable time, NCVA’s petition was approved as a matter of law.

The State Board of Education was not placing an illegal moratorium upon virtual charter schools, as NCVA had contended.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals disagreed with the administrative law judge and the challenges that were raised by NCVA.  In particular, the Court of Appeals stated in its December 2013 opinion that the State Board of Education was acting within its rights when it decided to wait before approving NCVA’s petition.  The Court of Appeals stated that the State Board of Education was not placing an illegal moratorium upon virtual charter schools, as NCVA contended, but was instead giving proper consideration to all the ways in which education in North Carolina would be impacted by the introduction of virtual charter schools.  This consideration by the State Board of Education was necessary in order to craft an appropriate response.

The State Board of Education has adopted guiding principles that will direct the course of action for any future virtual charter schools.  Included among these is a definition of virtual charter schools: “a public charter school open to all eligible North Carolina students, who are enrolled full-time at the school, and who receive their education predominately through online instructional methods.”  Lawmakers decided to allow only those students in grades six through twelve to enroll in virtual charter schools.  Lower grade levels were excluded because they have been shown to be years in which students benefit the most from personal interaction with teachers and peers in the classroom.

Virtual Charter schools now will be required to adhere to standards that test results show they cannot meet.

The new guiding principles established performance standards that virtual charter schools must meet in order to continue operating.  Test results that have been gathered from other virtual schools across the nation have left much to be desired.  Virtual charter schools are frequently presented as being ideal for students to move through lessons at their own pace, but studies about their effectiveness have revealed that few students who are enrolled in these schools are able to demonstrate that they know the material expected for their grade level.  Supporters of virtual charter schools, however, argue that these schools have produced results that show that the students who attend them score the same as or better than their peers who attend traditional public schools nationwide.

Differences in testing procedures, however, make drawing comparisons between virtual charter schools and brick and mortar public schools difficult.  Virtual charter schools gauge their students’ performance by using a testing program called Scantron, a series of optional multiple choice exams that the students take at home without a proctor being present.  The results from these tests are skewed by the fact that only about seventy percent of students enrolled in virtual charter schools decide to take these exams, as opposed to the mandatory exams that are given at public schools.  The results produced by the students who take the Scantron tests are expected to be higher because these students care enough about their own educational performance to take a test that is not required, and this dedication to education likely is reflected in their overall study habits.

The technology utilized by virtual charter schools does not adequately engage students.

Virtual schools are unable to ensure that each of their students exerts her best effort because the design of these schools possesses defects that traditional schools do not face.  While these schools take attendance at each virtual class, there is no way for the teachers to know whether the student is engaged in the learning process.  For instance, in schools that teach through the use of pre-recorded lessons, attendance is based on whether the student has viewed the video recording.  Once the recording has started, however, there is nothing to prevent the student from leaving the room.  Additionally, the tests that are given by these schools are multiple choice, and students are not hindered in any way from looking up the answers on the Internet.

NCVA’s is not the first attempt to establish a virtual school in North Carolina.  North Carolina students already are served by the North Carolina Virtual Public School.  NCVPS follows the curriculum that is set out by the North Carolina Standard Course of Study and acts as a supplement to instruction that students receive in public, private, or home schools.  Unlike the model that is followed by many virtual charter schools, NCVPS uses a variety of teaching techniques, such as “learning management and collaborative software,” that keep students involved in their classes to the highest degree possible.  Test results for some NCVPS classes, particularly Algebra I, show struggles by the students.  This likely is due to the fact that many students who enroll in NCVPS classes have already had difficulty with the material in a traditional classroom.

In order to remain open, virtual charter schools make atypical accommodations for students.

Many opponents of virtual charter schools have concerns about these schools’ source of funding and the impact that this has upon the classroom experience.  The idea of diverting public funds away from local schools to companies that operate for profit is repugnant to many people.  The State Board of Education’s new guiding principles have attempted to alleviate some of these concerns, but they did not reach the core problem of these schools.  Under the guiding principles, virtual charter schools will not draw on local funds but will instead receive the same yearly rate as that given to students in the North Carolina Virtual Public School.

This decision, however, does not alter the implications that arise from virtual charter schools operating as for-profit companies.  In order to remain open, virtual charter schools make accommodations for students that they would not otherwise have if they were enrolled in traditional public schools.  For instance, many virtual charter schools will allow students who do not complete assignments on-time to receive credit as long as the student demonstrates that he or she has mastered the material.  In order to continue operating, virtual charter schools are required to maintain their enrollment levels, and in order to do that, these schools provide students a high degree of leeway and try to keep the parents of students satisfied at all costs.

Virtual charter schools possess many positive attributes.  For students whose needs might not be served adequately by the traditional classroom experience, these programs could prove to be invaluable.  The track record of virtual charter schools, however, has not lived up to the high expectations of their supporters.  This is rooted in the technological drawbacks that are present in the design of these schools.  These schools fail to ensure that students are actively involved in the learning process, and the tests that they give students do not adequately gauge the student understanding of the material.  The recent guiding principles laid out by the State Board of Education are helpful in moving forward, but they do not change the fact that some virtual charter schools care more about profits than pupils.

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About John Mace, Former Senior Staff Writer (19 Articles)
John served as a Senior Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. He is originally from Concord, North Carolina, and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2012 with degrees in Political Science and History and a minor in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. John worked as an assistant for Sha Hinds-Glick with the Bar Success program at Campbell. He graduated from Campbell Law School in May 2015.
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