Out of state money behind secret plan to fund charter takeover of NC’s worst performing schools

Out of state money behind secret plan to fund charter takeover of NC’s worst performing schools

- in Education

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Extensive behind-the-scenes work to develop proposal

Rep. Rob Bryan (R-Mecklenburg) may be the face of a plan to allow charter school operators to take over North Carolina’s worst performing schools, but he’s not the only Bryan with fingerprints on the proposal.

Enter John D. Bryan, an Oregon-based retired business executive—and multimillionaire—who has long standing ties to the school privatization movement developing in the Tar Heel state and is a backer of conservative causes and political campaigns across the country.

John Bryan has underwritten the creation of ten charter schools across North Carolina, and now thanks to his political efforts, he’s also behind a secret plan modeled after similar controversial initiatives in Tennessee, New Orleans and elsewhere to allow charter operators to fire an entire school’s staff and start from scratch in an attempt to catapult a public school into the top 25 percent of the state.

The proposal to create an ‘achievement school district’ that wrests control of low-performing schools away from local school boards and into the hands of charter operators is being developed behind closed doors as the legislative session marches on, with numerous lawmakers and advocates working in tandem on successive drafts of the legislation.

And the final proposal, if it ever makes it to the House and Senate floors, will be the fruit of lobbying efforts commissioned by millionaire John Bryan.

“Yeah, I’m lobbying that bill,” Raleigh-based McGuire Woods lobbyist Harry Kaplan told N.C. Policy Watch on Monday of the proposed legislation that he’s pushing on behalf of a political organization created by the Oregon financier.

Follow the money

It’s a complicated trail of breadcrumbs between the well-funded brainchild of conservative donor John Bryan and Rep. Rob Bryan’s draft legislation to create an ‘achievement school district.’

John Bryan, who is reportedly a retired chemical company executive, is founder of an organization called TeamCFA, an offshoot of his family’s foundation that is devoted to developing a network of charter schools around the country — most of which exist in North Carolina.

All 140+ charter schools are public in North Carolina and receive taxpayer dollars. But many charters, envisioned decades ago to be laboratories of innovation in which best practices could be scaled up to traditional public schools, also receive outside support from donors.

A 2011 NC Policy Watch investigation unveiled Bryan’s vested interest in North Carolina, chronicling how he has given generous amounts of his millions to multiple charter schools by way of TeamCFA.

Four years ago, Bryan had already given hundreds of thousands of dollars to four charter schools in North Carolina. Since then, the number of TeamCFA-underwritten charters has grown to seven, with three more expected to open this fall, according to TeamCFA’s Southeast Regional Director Tom Holten.

Holten says TeamCFA doesn’t have a say in the operations of these schools, but on each school’s board there sits two TeamCFA members, and those folks make their opinions known about how they think the schools are handling the education of their students.

So why does John Bryan have an interest in North Carolina?

“I won’t speak for Mr. Bryan,” Tom Holten told N.C. Policy Watch, “but TeamCFA has a big role in North Carolina because we want to help kids and we want to help education.”

Bryan, who didn’t return a request for comment for this story, has also written numerous personal checks to the campaigns of multiple North Carolina lawmakers.

Rep. Rob Bryan, who is the lead lawmaker pushing the bill that would create an ‘Achievement School District,’ has received $10,000 in campaign contributions since 2013 from John Bryan.*

According to the North Carolina State Board of Elections, since 2010 John Bryan has given well over $100,000 to candidates who have a record of pushing school privatization efforts, including House Speaker Tim Moore, Rep. Jason Saine, former Guilford Rep. Marcus Brandon, Rep. Paul Stam, and Sen. Ralph Hise. And that list is likely not comprehensive, either, since many lawmakers don’t submit digitized campaign finance records, making it more difficult to search online for contributions.

In 2013, John Bryan created an organization that’s an offshoot of TeamCFA, called “Education Freedom Alliance,” which, Bryan explained here, was to be the legislative and political arm of TeamCFA’s school choice efforts.

Bryan tapped former Americans for Prosperity state director Stuart Jolly to run the Oklahoma-based organization. EFA’s North Carolina-based representative is Charles Philip Byers, who also chairs the board of Parents for Educational Freedom NC, an organization known for its efforts to promote and defend North Carolina’s school voucher program. Byers was also recently elected to the UNC Board of Governors and serves as president of John Bryan’s Challenge Foundation Properties, which leases facilities to charter schools at low-interest rates. He also sits on the boards of several TeamCFA charter schools in North Carolina.

McGuire Woods lobbyist Harry Kaplan explained to N.C. Policy Watch that Education Freedom Alliance was one of their clients and that on their behalf, he was behind lobbying efforts to create an ‘achievement school district’ designed to allow charter school operators to take over the state’s poorest performing schools.

How the plan would work

Perhaps the most famous locales where achievement school districts have been tried are New Orleans and Tennessee—and with mixed results.

In Tennessee, charter operators were tasked with bringing the bottom five percent of schools up into the top 25 percent within five years. While some gains in students’ academic outcomes have been achieved, no schools have budged much higher than the bottom five percent and the school takeovers have rankled parents who say that management has failed to get community support or take the time to truly understand the needs of their students.

And in New Orleans, which was almost completely taken over by charter school operators, significant academic gains have been made by students—but it’s a situation not easily replicated as the city had reached rock bottom status thanks to Hurricane Katrina.

The North Carolina proposal, the most recent version of which Rep. Rob Bryan provided to the Charlotte Observer, would pull five of the state’s lowest-performing elementary schools out of their local school districts—possibly beginning in the fall of 2016—and place them in the separate achievement school district.

The ASD would be able to replace all current teachers and staff and enter into five year contracts with private charter school management companies to handle the schools’ operations.

If a local school district wants to prevent any of their low-performing schools from being moved to the achievement school district, their only option would be to shut the school down.

The ASD’s superintendent (chosen by a search committee headed up by the Lieutenant Governor, who is a vocal critic of public education) would be in charge of recommending to the State Board of Education which charter management company should run the schools.

Nothing in the proposed legislation in its current form requires interested charter management companies to go through a lengthy vetting process by state officials in order to set up shop in North Carolina, as is currently required.

Nor would the charter-managed schools be subject to the same level of oversight as traditional public schools—an accountability model that has proven highly problematic in North Carolina in recent years with the closure of several schools thanks to financial fraud and governance problems. Other charters continue to operate even though their operations have raised serious concerns about educational quality and appropriate use of taxpayer dollars.

Democratic minority leader Rep. Larry Hall (D-Durham) says at this point in time, allowing charter operators to take over poor performing public schools is a plan he can’t support.

“We already have a model that works and there is evidence to support it’s working,” said Hall, referring to a school turnaround model funded by federal Race to the Top dollars that has shown to help some of the state’s poorest-performing public schools improve academically over the past few years.

In a presentation to the State Board of Education earlier this month, Vanderbilt researcher Gary Henry said he found positive effects from turnaround efforts in North Carolina’s bottom ranked elementary schools—but without continued state funding to replace the temporary federal dollars that were put toward this initiative, those gains won’t continue.

“Turnaround services, including Comprehensive Needs Assessments, School Improvement Planning, Instructional Coaching, School Leadership Coaching, District Leadership Coaching, and Professional Development will be required for the foreseeable future to ensure adequate education for all students in North Carolina,” said Henry.

With lawmakers duking it out over whether or not to eliminate a large number of teacher aides in elementary classrooms, it’s hard to imagine that the state and local school districts will be able to keep school turnaround efforts going into the future.

Crafting legislation outside of the public eye

Rep. Bryan’s draft legislation to create an achievement school district has been through at least 26 versions, and he says he’s been talking to several Republicans, Democrats and education advocates about ways to improve it all along—but so far, those conversations have all taken place in private, and the bill still hasn’t made it into a public education committee hearing.

“As soon as I heard about the achievement school district bill, I just knew I had to be a part of it,” said former state lawmaker Marcus Brandon, who founded a charter school in High Point and is now executive director of CarolinaCAN, a state chapter of the national advocacy group 50CAN which works to promote high quality charter schools.

Brandon said he first found out about the achievement school district bill from lobbyists with McGuire Woods, then quickly became involved in shaping it behind the scenes.

“I think if ASDs can be done the right way, it’s a good thing,” Brandon told N.C. Policy Watch, explaining that he’s worked hard to develop provisions in the bill that would force charter operators to develop strong community buy-in and provide wraparound services that can help students outside of school hours.

It’s important to learn from the failures in Tennessee, for example, says Brandon. Charter takeovers there have tended to be very sudden, angering parents who see their beloved neighborhood schools, which often serve as cornerstones of Memphis communities, become quickly transformed into unknown entities.

Brenda Berg, CEO of BEST NC, a coalition of business executives committed to improving North Carolina’s public education system, says she too has helped shape the bill over time.

“It’s not one of our agenda items,” Berg told N.C. Policy Watch, “but we’ve helped to make it a better bill.”

Berg says she’s more interested in seeing a package of bills being promoted by Rep. Craig Horn become law, which would invoke more systemic change in public schools through improving the teacher and principal pipelines.

But, admitted Berg, she worked to improve the ASD bill behind the scenes because she wants to be involved in any conversation that could support low-performing schools.

“We were thrilled to be asked to help,” said Berg.

When asked if the lack of transparency around the development of the bill was troubling, Berg emphatically said no.

“The process of vetting [a bill] behind closed doors and asking education advocates their opinion is very normal,” said Berg.

But Jonathan Jones, the director of the NC Open Government Coalition and an instructor at Elon College feels differently.

“When bills get introduced at the last minute and all the heavy work has been done out of the public eye, then there is little chance for public to respond,” said Jones.

Jones explained that while there’s nothing wrong with a legislator ensuring a rigorous review of legislation before introducing it, it’s still important to get it out in front of the people.

“When little time for public reaction, it takes away the opportunity to improve the bill or look at it from a different light and realize there is a serious public policy reason that might cause us to think that we should step back,” said Jones.

“But if everything’s been done behind closed doors, lawmakers tend to believe all bases have been covered and there’s no need for public debate.”

It’s an increasing trend to bring bills to the floor with little to no public debate.

“Few bills that have been introduced at the last minute have been stopped,” observed Jones. “And that’s bad for democracy.”

Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or lindsay@ncpolicywatch.com

Twitter: @LindsayWagnerNC

*This story has been updated to include additional campaign contributions to Rep. Rob Bryan from Oregon-based funder John D. Bryan.

About the author

Lindsay Wagner, former Education Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch. Wagner now works for the A.J. Fletcher Foundation as Education Specialist. She has also worked for the American Federation of Teachers in Washington, D.C., as a writer and researcher focusing on higher education issues and for the National Education Association, the U.S. Department of State's Fulbright program and the Brookings Institution.
lindsay@ajf.org