Achievement school districts may be reporting mixed numbers in other states, but the controversial reform model—which could effectively turn over management of low-performing public schools, including hiring and firing powers, to for-profit charter operators—seems bound for a pilot program in North Carolina.
Republican education leaders in the North Carolina House’s Select Committee on Achievement School Districts  met for the first time Wednesday, with plans to convene two more meetings in February and March before making a legislative recommendation.
N.C. Rep. Rob Bryan, the Republican from Mecklenburg County who chairs the committee and the leading proponent for achievement school districts in the legislature, said that the districts—pioneered, to mixed results in states like Louisiana, Michigan and Tennessee—could be phased into North Carolina as soon as the 2017-2018 academic year.
“We are neither Tennessee, nor are we New Orleans,” said Bryan. “But what I’m looking to do here is do what’s right for North Carolina.”
Bryan authored a much-discussed draft of legislation  last year that would have funneled five of the state’s lowest-performing elementary schools into the state-controlled achievement districts as a pilot program, although the notion did not gain any significant traction during the General Assembly’s long budget debates last summer.
The draft Bryan unveiled Wednesday  had few differences from last year’s prospective bill, potentially ceding the power to hire and fire teachers and administrators to private, for-profit charter leaders. Pilot schools would be placed into a special state-run district, with a superintendent chosen by the State Board of Education who would have the power to negotiate operation contracts with private companies, effectively seizing control from local school boards.
The charter operators would be expected to help turn around academic performance in the schools.
As N.C. Policy Watch reported last year , lobbying for the movement was financed by Oregon millionaire and conservative private school backer John Bryan (no relation to Rep. Rob Bryan).
“The goal of this bill from my perspective is to continue to pilot the way that we can get kids who are not performing where we want them to be to performing at grade-level or above as quickly as possible,” said Rep. Bryan. “For all of us, it’s not quickly enough.”
Meanwhile, public school supporters this week continued to criticize the districts as a potentially inefficient and ineffective use of public dollars.
“I believe that the taxpayers of North Carolina would get a better return on their investments by going with a model that has proven positive results,” North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson told N.C. Policy Watch Tuesday.
To Atkinson, that means pursuing public school-led initiatives, offering low-performing schools greater support, access to preschool programs and more flexible calendar years.
As Atkinson points out, students in low-performing schools can lose two to three months of reading development during traditional schools’ summer break.
“We have to address these root causes or we’ll continue to have these conversations 10 years from now,” said Atkinson.
Much of Wednesday’s committee meeting, while intended to delve into the finer points of Bryan’s achievement school district pilot, focused instead on continuing frustrations over reforms in the state’s 581 low-performing schools, a designation based on state assessments of school performance.
Nancy Barbour, director of district and school transformation for the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI), explained how her office intervenes with local schools and districts, coaching teachers, administrators and local school boards across the state.
All of the schools Barbour’s office served since 2010 have improved their dropout rates, she said, and more than 80 percent were lifted out of the bottom five percent of schools in the state. However, of the schools listed as low-performing in North Carolina, Barbour said her office has only been able to directly intervene in 79.
“We work within the resources we have,” said Barbour.
The conversation led Rep. D. Craig Horn, a Republican from Union County who describes himself as a supporter of Bryan’s pilot program, to suggest to committee members Wednesday that the state may be better suited focusing its efforts on current programs.
“I couldn’t help but wonder about some of the success (we’re) already having,” said Horn. “Maybe the answer is already on our plate and we just need to do more of it. Would we not be able to impact more students more quickly?”
Meanwhile, Rep. Ed Hanes Jr., a Democrat from Forsyth County, blasted state officials during Wednesday’s committee meeting for failing to do enough to address the societal and economic causes of low-performing schools.
As Barbour pointed out Wednesday, low-performing schools in the state are disproportionately serving low-income and minority children.
“It sounds like a lot of talk,” said Hanes. “It sounds like we don’t really dig into what the real issues are. … And it sounds to me like we really don’t care a whole lot about poor people.”
Hanes also noted that state-designated low-performing schools might be excluding some, saying that two schools in his district have low reading proficiency scores but are not considered low-performing.
Wednesday’s committee meeting came one day before Gary Henry, a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, was scheduled to present his seminal research on achievement school districts to the Public School Forum of North Carolina , a public schools advocacy group, in Raleigh.
Despite promises from achievement school district backers that some of Tennessee’s most troubled schools would be vaulted into the top 25 percent of schools statewide, standardized testing scores have shown no “statistically significant” difference in the district’s schools, according to Henry’s research.
“Generally, there are no detectable effects that we’ve found,” Henry told N.C. Policy Watch this week.
Henry added that there have been notable gains made by Tennessee’s “innovation zones” or “iZones,” a public school-steered method that allotted greater flexibility, funding and development opportunities for struggling urban districts in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga.
“What’s going on in (iZones) is very promising,” Henry said. “It remains to be seen if charter operators can operate neighborhood schools as effectively.”
However, Henry did compliment achievement school districts for strong teacher recruiting efforts in Tennessee. “I wouldn’t say we feel that the book should be closed on the achievement school districts, but we do think that it bears looking at,” he said.
Still, Henry, one of the leading education researchers nationwide on the controversial model and a former UNC-Chapel Hill professor who once assessed North Carolina’s own low-performing school interventions, said Tuesday that he has not been invited to address Bryan’s committee or discuss his findings.
Henry did say he hopes some of the state’s select committee members will attend Thursday’s Public School Forum event.
Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County who sits on the select committee, asked Bryan during Wednesday’s meeting to consider inviting Henry. Bryan made no promises, but said he would include the researcher’s data on the committee website.
“I would really like to hear all sides of the story before I commit one way or the other,” said Cotham.
Bryan said he expected the committee to hear in February from school officials involved in achievement school districts in Tennessee and Louisiana before the committee will make a recommendation.