NC lawmakers want to make sure cursive is taught and that virtual charter schools stay open

Student dancer uses online charter to help balance school and ballet

Clark Eselgroth dances in an advanced program at the International Ballet Academy in Cary when most others his age are in classrooms. Eselgroth, a sophomore, moved from Asheville to Cary three years ago and was soon confronted with how to balance.
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Clark Eselgroth dances in an advanced program at the International Ballet Academy in Cary when most others his age are in classrooms. Eselgroth, a sophomore, moved from Asheville to Cary three years ago and was soon confronted with how to balance.

State lawmakers who oversee North Carolina's public schools think the two low-performing virtual charter schools should be allowed to remain open for four more years and that elementary schools must prove they're teaching cursive handwriting and multiplication tables.

N.C. Connections Academy and the N.C. Virtual Academy are both in the third year of a four-year pilot program testing the concept of online charter schools. They'll only be open until 2019 unless state lawmakers act. In a report adopted Tuesday, the legislature's Education Oversight Committee recommended letting the two schools stay open through 2023 to give more time to see how they're working.

“We’re not pulling the plug, nor are we saying it’s a permanent part of the state," said Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican and co-chairman of the committee. "It’s a step toward permanence. We’re still learning as are other parts of the country if this is a good option for our students."

The recommendations come as lawmakers are set to begin this year's legislative session later this month.

The committee's recommendations were panned by left-leaning groups, particularly the one allowing the virtual schools to stay open despite having been labeled as low performing academically by the state during their first two years.

"It shows that the General Assembly continues not to be focused in a serious way on the issues that are important to public education in North Carolina," said Kris Nordstrom, education finance and policy consultant for the N.C. Justice Center's Education and Law Project. "They’re not focused on the barriers to success for our students They’re not focused on seriously meeting the needs of our teachers.”

Online charter schools have been a source of national and local controversy. Supporters say they provide more education options for families while critics have pointed to their poor performance and efforts in some states to shut them down.

The State Board of Education reluctantly approved the two virtual charter schools in 2015 after state lawmakers passed a law requiring the state to allow a four-year pilot program for two companies. Two for-profit companies stepped forward to submit applications.

The N.C. Virtual Academy is part of K12 Inc., a public company that posted $9 million in profits in 2016.

Connections Academy is part of Baltimore-based Connections Education, which itself is owned by the international company Pearson, which publishes textbooks and sells a range of education products for children, college students and adult workers. Pearson had a $3.2 billion loss in 2016 after it took a large write-down in the value of its U.S. higher education business.

Each school has grown to serve more than 2,000 students from across the state. But both schools earned Ds from the state in their first two years for their academic performance and also fell short of expectations for student academic growth.

"While the Committee acknowledges that student achievement outcomes have not been as high as the Committee would have wanted, the Committee also recognizes that the virtual charter schools provide an alternate choice to traditional public schools and traditional charter schools for many families throughout the State," the committee report reads.

Representatives from both schools had asked that they be made permanent programs. Horn said recommending that the schools continue as a pilot would give the state more leverage to get them to improve.

But Nordstrom said the recommendation shows the strength of the schools' lobbyists to allow them they stay open.

"The sad joke is that it was ever approved in the first place," he said. "Virtual charters have failed in every other place they have tried.”

The committee's report included several other findings and recommendations.

One recommendation reflects the committee's dissatisfaction with whether school districts are meeting a 2013 state law that says public schools must teach cursive writing so that students “create readable documents through legible cursive handwriting by the end of fifth grade.” The “Back to Basics” law also says students in public schools are required to memorize multiplication tables.

Teacher Cindy Kusilek demonstrates the cursive J in her third grade class at Franklin Academy Charter School on Feb. 22, 2013 in Wake Forest, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

As part of last year's state budget, the state Department of Public Instruction was required to report back on how school districts were carrying out the 2013 law. The report indicated 93 percent of elementary schools said they taught cursive at least occasionally and 94 percent said they taught multiplication tables weekly.

But the committee criticized the DPI report as not having enough details. The committee recommends passing legislation that would require annual reporting, including listing which districts aren't in compliance with the 2013 law.

Nordstrom questioned requiring the reporting on the teaching of cursive, which he called "inconsequential" to student learning. But Horn said lawmakers want to make sure that the state law is being followed.

"We are emphasizing the fact that we are very serious about cursive writing and times tables," Horn said. "We’re going to up the ante about it by requiring more reporting. The law is the law."

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui
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