Plan could give for-profit charter operators control over low-performing public schools
A controversial reform method that turns over management of low-performing schools to charter operators  met with a speedy, unanimous approval in a legislative study committee Wednesday morning, but not without some reservations from one of the N.C. General Assembly’s most powerful budget writers.
N.C. Rep. Craig Horn, a Republican from Union County who chairs the House budget committee for K-12 education, said he stayed up late Tuesday night discussing the so-called “achievement school district” legislation with Rep. Rob Bryan, the Republican from Mecklenburg County who is its chief proponent in the chamber.
Horn even indicated he may have changed his mind on the draft bill as recently as Wednesday morning before Bryan’s study committee met.
“Contrary to how I felt last night, I feel today that we should move this forward,” said Horn. “I don’t want to see this die. If it dies here, we won’t even start working on it again until 2017. … And I don’t think these underserved kids can wait yet more time.”
Bryan’s legislation emerged in the state House last year, but failed to gain any significant traction. The model, which Bryan emphasized as a “pilot program” Wednesday, could pull some of the lowest performing schools in North Carolina into one state-run district, which would be allowed to turn over management, including hiring and firing powers, to for-profit charter operators.
A superintendent for the district would by chosen by the State Board of Education. The superintendent would have the power to negotiate operation contracts with private companies, effectively wresting control from local school boards.
Schools in Bryan’s pilot could be pulled into the achievement district without local support if a school received a performance score in the lowest 5 percent of all K-5 schools in the prior academic year. Local boards can also request to have a school join the district if it received a score in the bottom 10 percent.
The draft  will be shuttled to the House Education Committee before it’s discussed on the floor in the legislature, although it is likely to still face some stiff questions about funding the model. As Horn told committee members last month, the achievement school district that it’s modeled after in Tennessee was funded with $500 million in federal grants, extra cash that North Carolina does not have at this time.
Bryan said Wednesday that the legislation will have more opportunity for “questions and tweaks” as it makes its way to the House education committee.
On Wednesday, though, despite reservations from some public school advocates in the past, the draft gained approval from two Democrats: Rep. Ed Hanes Jr. of Forsyth County and Rep. Cecil Brockman of Guilford County. Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Democratic school teacher from Mecklenburg County and one of the legislature’s chief public education advocates, was absent.
Bryan has said that he hopes to phase in the takeover model—which has earned very mixed results in other states like Tennessee, Michigan and Louisiana—as soon as the 2017-2018 academic year, although Horn said Wednesday that he expects the process of creating the district could take at least a year.
Policy Watch reported last year  that lobbying for the movement was financed by Oregon millionaire and conservative private school backer John Bryan (no relation to Rep. Rob Bryan).
And while the model was met with considerable public resistance from parents in Tennessee’s achievement school districts in recent years, proponents cite it as an innovative means of turning around performance in perennially struggling schools, despite data to the contrary.
“My passion for this is making sure we don’t have another three, five, ten years of watching kids not getting the education they need to be successful when they get out of K-12 in North Carolina,” Bryan said Wednesday.
Brockman joined a chorus of Republicans Wednesday in cheering Bryan’s legislation, adding that he hopes lawmakers “fast-track” the bill when they reconvene later this month.
“This is something for my Democratic friends,” said Brockman. “We defend the status quo too much when it comes to public education.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Rena Turner, R-Iredell, said she’s “excited” about the bill. “We have to take every opportunity to respond to our kids who are underserved,” said Turner.
An administrator in Tennessee’s district told committee members last month that the reform was beginning to gain its footing after a rocky first two years . However, that presentation came shortly before Vanderbilt University education researcher Gary Henry presented data that, despite promises of school turnarounds in Tennessee, seem to show the district had created no statistically significant changes in student performance  in its early years.
As a result, public school leaders in North Carolina have been openly critical of achievement school districts since the proposal was floated last year.
This week, N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson reaffirmed her opposition in an interview with Policy Watch’s Chris Fitzsimon.
“Why would we spend extra dollars that could be spent in the classroom directly helping students in order for out of state or other companies to hire a superintendent to run a school or schools across North Carolina?” said Atkinson. “I think it’s an idea that has not proven to be very effective in other states using that idea.”
Shortly after the vote Wednesday, Yevonne Brannon, chair of the advocacy group Public Schools First NC , said the bill does nothing to address the root cause of some chronically struggling schools: high concentrations of children from impoverished families.
“We’re not doing anything to improve per-pupil expenditures,” said Brannon. “We’re not doing anything to address teacher turnover. We’re not providing more wraparound services. We’re looking for more harsh, punitive measures to deal with low performing schools rather than being more thoughtful and more purposeful.”
On Wednesday, though, Horn seemed to dismiss critics who noted the district’s mixed results in other states.
“Fear of failure is not a deterrent,” said Horn.
The draft legislation  approved Wednesday by the study committee, while containing the core of Bryan’s achievement school district proposal from last year, does include several notable additions produced during committee discussions this year.
Chiefly, the bill folds in “innovation zones” or “iZones,” a reform that would grant charter-like flexibility to low-performing schools. The iZone status could be requested by local school boards, yet management of the school would be designated to a separate innovation zone office appointed by the local board and approved by the State Board of Education.
Henry told legislators last month that his research has shown considerably more evidence of improvement in Tennessee schools employing iZones rather than achievement school districts. The concept was a late addition to Bryan’s legislation this spring, yet it met with fast support from some committee members, including Horn.
Horn, a reluctant backer of Bryan’s achievement school district bill, said Wednesday that he would prefer to see iZones pulled out into standalone legislation.
The legislation would also authorize a school reform called the “principal turnaround model,” allowing local school boards, with the consultation of the achievement school district and approval of the State Board of Education, to replace the school’s principal with another administrator with a “proven record of success as a principal or superintendent.”
Public school supporters such as Atkinson, however, have argued that lawmakers’ focus should be on boosting current school turnaround models in the state.
Indeed, Nancy Barbour, director of district and school transformation for the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI), told committee members in January that all of the schools her office has served since 2010 have improved their dropout rates and more than 80 percent of those schools ascended from the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state.
Yet Barbour’s office, which intervenes by coaching local school teachers and administrators, had only been able to work with 79 of the state’s 581 designated low-performing schools during that time due to a lack of resources.
Henry’s research has also indicated evidence of improvement among schools targeted by the state’s Turning Around North Carolina’s Lowest Achieving Schools , or TALAS, program, which channels federal grants into intervention and training in some of the state’s lowest performing schools.
However, a report last month from Duke University researcher Helen Ladd  indicated TALAS has failed to do its job, pointing to poor test results in reading and math and an increased concentration of low-income children in schools.
Still, public school advocates said this week that Bryan’s reform may be ultimately doomed.
“We think we can change the way these schools perform just by changing the management of the school, but we’ve seen that doesn’t work,” said Brannon.
Public school experts such as Ladd say state efforts may be better directed toward more school counselors and community interventions aimed at addressing the impacts of poverty on children, rather than school takeover models.
Atkinson said the state should simply seek more proven methods of improvement. “I don’t see it as an effective use of taxpayer dollars to go in this direction,” she said.
Meanwhile, Keith Poston, executive director of the Public School Forum of N.C., a research and advocacy group in Raleigh, offered a more muted response, saying in a statement that his group would continue to track the bill as it made its way to the House education committee.
“The most positive aspect of the bill is that it has focused attention on students and schools that need real support, rather than simply slapping an ‘F’ letter grade on the front door and walking away,” said Poston.
Indeed, Horn said, that is one of the key reasons he backed achievement school districts this week.
“It is incumbent on us to never let that out of our sight,” Horn said. “These kids are underserved for a variety of reasons. Anything that helps focus the light on underserved kids and attempts to find ways to deal with that, I’m absolutely on board.”