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There are two virtual charter schools in North Carolina.  Both serve a tiny fraction of the overall student population in the state and are only halfway through their first year of operation.  The schools are off to a very good start.

This is the first year of a four-year pilot program for virtual charter schools.  Policymakers are still trying to fully understand these schools and how they fit into North Carolina’s public education system.  So it doesn’t help when erroneous reports – based on bad information or a lack of understanding about virtual schools – cloud the facts.  Take for example one recent report that claimed North Carolina’s virtual charter schools were “off to a rocky start” because of “staggeringly high withdrawal rates.”

Is that really the case?  Let’s look at the number and compare.  The Department of Public Instruction reported that the North Carolina Virtual Academy had a 19 percent withdrawal rate and the North Carolina Connections Academy had a 20 percent withdrawal rate.  Compared to traditional schools, that may seem high, but it is actually in line with other statewide full-time and part-time virtual schools.  In fact, it’s lower than the withdrawal rates from many state-run virtual schools.

Virtual Virginia, the state department-run online school reported a 28 percent withdrawal rate in its full-time program.  Florida Virtual School (FLVS), one of the largest and longest running state-run virtual schools in the nation, had even higher withdrawal rates.  According to a study from Tax Watch, FLVS had high school course withdrawal rates exceeding 40 percent and 35 percent in two consecutive years, respectively.  In 2012, the Tampa Bay Times reported that according to FLVS’ figures, 66 percent of students who enroll in a course do not complete it.

North Carolina also has a large state-run virtual school, North Carolina Virtual Public School.  NCVPS’s withdrawal rates are not known either because the school does not publicly report that information or has not been required to disclose it.

Virtual schools are very different from traditional schools. They are also public schools of choice.  These schools are rigorous and require self-discipline and a high level of commitment.  Except for kindergarteners, the students who enroll in virtual schools are transfers and most come from classroom-based schools.  All the information sessions, orientations, and training we provide cannot erase the fact that many students will not really know if virtual schools are the right fit until they try it.  Withdrawal rates reflect virtual schools’ unique learning model, not the quality of the program.

If a parent chooses to withdraw their child from a virtual school to attend another school because they realize this model is not the right fit, how is that decision a bad thing?  It is a natural result of parental choice that is offered to families here in North Carolina.  Students should be where they have the best chance to succeed.  If NCVA is that school, then we want them here with us; however, if a family believes a different school is the best model for their child, then we want them at that other school.

That same report mischaracterized the funding implications by stating that “virtual charters are funded based on a one-day count of membership” and that “local schools systems will lose out on vital public funding.”  Both statements are incorrect.

Virtual charter schools are funded differently from brick-and-mortar charter schools.  Brick and mortar charters are funded on an average daily membership of the first twenty days.  After that period if the student count goes down, the charter school funding is not reduced throughout the school year.  However, virtual charter schools are funded on a one day snapshot at the 20th and 100th day.  Thus, the state could decrease funding to the virtual charter school based on that second headcount.

Additionally, the Department of Public Instruction requested, and received, from the General Assembly a special reserve fund to help school districts offset funding impacts from students who choose to transfer into virtual charters.

Brick-and-mortar charter schools receive 17.2% less funding that district schools, and virtual charters receive an even smaller portion of that funding to educate the same full-time student.  Small county and low wealth supplemental funds are not provided to virtual charters despite the fact that almost every county in the state has students enrolled in virtual charter schools.  That funding gap between traditional schools and virtual charters gets larger when you consider local funds.  Virtual charters cannot receive more than $790 in local funds.  So, for example, if a district receives $1200 per child from local funds, the virtual charter school would receive $790 while the district (which is not educating the student) keeps the remaining $410

North Carolina’s virtual charter schools are serving a critical role in public education by helping a diverse group of students with a wide range of needs.  Parents are very excited to have this new public school choice and eager to share their children’s stories.

The team I lead at North Carolina Virtual Academy is proud of what we’ve accomplished so far, yet we are not perfect by any means.  As I wrote in the News & Observer before the school year began, we will learn from our mistakes and build on our successes, and we will always do so with high integrity and full commitment to students.

Joel Medley is the Head of School for North Carolina Virtual Academy. 

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