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Tempers flare as controversial Achievement School District bill clears House

ASD-Brockman [1]
Rep. Cecil Brockman is a co-sponsor of HB 1080.

Unproven model allows for charter takeover of state’s lowest-performing schools

Rep. Cecil Brockman is admitting he could have been more eloquent.

House Bill 1080 [2], perhaps the most controversial K-12 education bill in the legislature thus far this year, was bristling when he rebuffed a fellow Democrat’s calls for teacher appreciation moments ago.

Brockman’s bill for achievement school districts—a reform that could grant for-profit charters the ability to wring control of a low-performing school from a local school district—is not about teachers, he insists.

North Carolina public schools have failed black students, he says, many of them crammed into the same low-performing, low-wealth schools his legislation targets.

“If (teachers) don’t like it, good,” he fires off. “This is about the kids. Who cares about the teachers? We should care about the kids. If they don’t like it, maybe it’s a good thing.”

Minutes later, challenged by another lawmaker, Brockman apologized if his comments offended any teachers. “I was being provocative,” the legislator confessed.

Such is the nature of debate in the N.C. General Assembly these days, particularly when it comes to House Bill 1080. Some lawmakers, backed by a network of Oregon-based charters operating 10 schools in North Carolina [3], are hoping to push through changes hotly contested by many public school advocates.

“It’s unproven at best,” Mark Jewell, president-elect of the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE), one of the most powerful teacher lobbying groups in Raleigh, told House lawmakers last week.

Later, Jewell groused that achievement school districts represent little more than a “new layer of bureaucracy that lacks the accountability to ensure public dollars are being spent effectively.”

Among its components, Brockman’s bill—which he co-sponsored with Charlotte-area Republicans Rob Bryan and John Bradford III—will funnel five of the state’s lowest-performing schools into one state-run district, regardless of geography. State officials will then be able to hand over control, including hiring and firing powers, to charter operators in five-year contracts.

It’s a controversial model that, based on the numbers reported in similar programs in Tennessee, Michigan and Louisiana, has produced mixed results and bitter opposition from local parents, many of whom are fired up over the notion of turning over their local schools to outside charters.

Yet, following a contentious debate on the bill Thursday morning, House lawmakers voted to approve 60-49, with Republicans and Democrats falling on both sides of the issue. Now the legislation heads to the state Senate. It’s unclear when the bill may see the Senate floor, although chamber lawmakers dispatched the bill to a Senate rules committee Thursday afternoon.

Bryan said Thursday that the achievement school district draft is in roughly its 50th incarnation, and the Teach for America alum, now an attorney in Charlotte and one of the legislation’s biggest proponents, echoed many other supporters when he said Thursday that he considered the reform to be just “another tool in the toolbox.”

In addition to charter takeovers, House Bill 1080 would also allow for the creation of so-called “innovation zones” or iZones, districts granted charter-like flexibility by the state. These zones were found to have greater effects on students’ performance in Tennessee, according to a Vanderbilt study of that state’s reform efforts [4] which largely panned charter takeovers.

The iZones were greeted far more warmly than charter takeovers. When House committee lawmakers approved a draft of the bill last week [5], they did so over several protesting teachers, who chanted, “We are teachers. We say shame.”

“This is not an effort to disrupt or offend districts,” said Bryan. “I don’t purport for this bill to be a cure-all. Nor do I think it will revolutionize education in this state, but I do hope we can provide relief for some of our kids who need it most.”

For his part, Brockman says too many in North Carolina allow the struggles of low-income and minority students to go unnoticed, pointing out two-thirds of the state’s African-American students are not performing at grade level.

“If the majority of all students, if two-thirds, was failing in this state, it would be an outright crisis,” he says.

But the bill’s numerous opponents say it’s an unproven reform that undercuts the state’s own ongoing efforts for school transformation in the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI), which shuttles additional resources and professional development at targeted schools. Indeed, leaders with DPI’s Office of District and School Transformation [6] told lawmakers earlier this year, of the schools served since 2010, all have improved their dropout rates [7].

Additionally, more than 80 percent were lifted from the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state, yet, due to funding shortages, the DPI office had only been able to intervene in 79 of the nearly 600 low-performing schools in the state.

Rep. Rosa Gill, a Democrat from Wake County and a former high school math teacher, likened Bryan and Brockman’s achievement schools districts to little more than a “tangent” and a “knee-jerk” reaction to chronically struggling schools.

“Why are we investing in a program that has been proven to be less effective in improving performance than what we’re already doing?” said Gill.

Agreed, said Rep. Bobbie Richardson, a Democrat and former educator from Franklin County. “We should be committed to that model because it is one of our own,” said Richardson. “We have just not been able to fund them. We chose not to fund them.”

Such arguments clearly resonated with Democrats and Republicans in the House, some of whom required convincing before signing off on House Bill 1080, although one of the bill’s biggest skeptics, influential Union County Republican Craig Horn, voted to back the bill Thursday.

“Is it perfect?” said Horn. “No. We have not yet passed the perfect legislation in this place, but fear of failure should never be a deterrent.”

However, Jewell of the NCAE adds that the muddled results in other states contradict the incremental gains reported by DPI’s own efforts.

Kris Nordstrom, a consultant for the progressive N.C. Justice Center (the parent nonprofit for N.C. Policy Watch) and a former fiscal analyst for the legislature, warned legislators that their efforts would be better spent on proven methods [8], such as increasing access to pre-K programs, expanding instructional time, recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers, and addressing poverty-related issues such as mental health and child nutrition.

“There’s no reason to believe that changing school management and exacerbating teacher turnover would address any of the underlying problems faced by student s in low-achieving schools,” Nordstrom said.

Yet, despite all the arguments this week, perhaps opponents’ criticism was best summed up Thursday by Rep. Joe Sam Queen [9], a Democrat from western North Carolina, who told legislators that achievement school districts are simply too much of a gamble.

“What we do know is important is that, without a good teacher in every classroom, public schools do not succeed,” said Queen. “Without a good principal in every public school, they do not succeed. If we would commit to what we know can improve public schools, if we would quit looking for the flavor of the day, we could make a difference.”