Politics & Government

Governor vetoes bill letting NC virtual charter schools add more students

Gov. Roy Cooper has vetoed a bill that would allow the state’s popular but low-performing virtual charter schools to add students, after two left-leaning groups urged him to reject the legislation.

State lawmakers passed a bill in July lifting the enrollment cap on the state’s two virtual charter schools so that they could grow by 20% a year. Cooper announced Monday that he had rejected Senate Bill 392, citing the schools’ poor academic performance.

“Current law already allows the State Board of Education to lift the enrollment cap on virtual charter schools,” Cooper, a Democrat, said in a statement. “Both schools have been low performing, raising concern about the effectiveness of this pilot. Decisions on adding more students should remain with the Board so it can measure progress and make decisions that will provide the best education for students.”

It wasn’t immediately clear if Republican legislative leaders will try to override the veto. There had been enough votes in the House to override Cooper but not in the Senate when the bill was approved.

Cooper has now vetoed three bills this year, including the state budget. Lawmakers haven’t been able to override any of them yet since the 2018 elections cost Republicans their veto-proof legislative majorities.

School choice debate

Republicans lawmakers accused Cooper of not supporting school choice with the veto.

“Expanding these education opportunities for students enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the state House to help kids learn in a setting that works best for them,” House Speaker Tim Moore tweeted Monday. “The Governor is now blocking innovative learning as well as school construction and pay raises.”

Bill D’Elia, a spokesman for Senate leader Phil Berger, noted how 1 in 5 North Carolina students don’t attend traditional public schools.

“It’s disappointing that Governor Cooper continues to fight against empowering parents to put their children in an educational setting that best fits their needs,” D’Elia said in a statement. “As recent enrollment numbers show, more parents than ever are taking control of their child’s education, as parents, not politicians, should be the ones making these decisions.”

The veto comes after the N.C. Justice Center and the N.C. Association of Educators had sent Cooper a letter July 17 saying he should “take a stand” against school privatization by rejecting the bill. Initially, both N.C. Virtual Academy and the recently renamed N.C. Cyber Academy were managed by out-of-state for-profit companies.

“Unproven and unaccountable education methods have no place in North Carolina,” Mark Jewell, president of NCAE, said in a statement. “We applaud the Governor’s veto of SB 392, and hope this sends a clear message to lawmakers that our students deserve better than the broken promises made by virtual charter schools.

“We must invest in instruction with the proven educational outcomes that our schools provide, and stop wasting money on out-of-state, for-profit experiments.”

Enrollment cap

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded schools that are exempt from some of the rules that traditional public schools must follow. In addition to the brick-and-mortar charter schools, state lawmakers required the State Board of Education to approve two virtual charters.

Both virtual schools opened in 2015 in what was originally supposed to be a four-year pilot program. The schools have been labeled as low-performing by the state every year they’ve been open.

Despite the poor academic results of both schools, state lawmakers showed their support by extending the pilot program to 2023.

But when the pilot was extended, lawmakers didn’t include the option for the schools to expand past the cap of 2,592 students set when the program was first created.

The state board voted in June to allow a one-year waiver of the enrollment cap for the Virtual Academy. But the board rejected the request from the Cyber Academy because it’s undergoing a management change that’s requiring it to report back monthly to the Charter Schools Advisory Board.

Under the legislation, only the Virtual Academy would be able to immediately take advantage of the new enrollment rules. The Cyber Academy would need to get state board approval to add students until it’s no longer undergoing monthly monitoring by the advisory board.

In addition to the enrollment changes, the bill makes several other charter school changes including:

Allows state Superintendent Mark Johnson to approve bonds to finance a charter school facility.

Requires the state board to give a 10-year renewal to a charter school if its test scores are at least within 5 percentage points of the school district where it’s physically located.

Requires background checks for members of the board of directors of charter schools.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.