Eric Hall, in the midst of a rainy drive to rural Robeson County to pitch North Carolina’s ambitious but controversial plan for a charter takeover of several low-performing schools, wants to set one thing straight.
“It’s not a takeover,” he says of the so-called Innovative School District (ISD) that he leads. “It’s about making conditions better locally.”
Hall seems well aware of the skepticism surrounding the model, once dubbed the “Achievement School District” but given a new name this year after rocky beginnings for similar efforts in states like Tennessee and Louisiana grabbed headlines.
Last week, Hall’s office released a list of 48 low-performing schools spread across 21 districts, the lion’s share situated in high-poverty locales. Each of them will be eligible for the first year of Hall’s district, which will launch with two schools in 2018-2019 and another three in 2019-2020.
Now he begins a slew of community meetings with local district leaders in places like Robeson County, home to five of the schools that made the state’s list. All reported performance grades in the bottom 5 percent statewide, and none met or exceeded academic growth goals in the last three years.
Hall plans to narrow that list in the next month, with the State Board of Education making the final decision on two schools in December.
In the meantime, he hopes to explain why North Carolina’s model—which could turn over a local public school’s operations, including hiring and firing powers, to a for-profit charter management organization—will work.
“My task is making folks understand this is so different from the models in Tennessee and Louisiana,” he says. North Carolina, he says, will start off with a relatively limited crop of schools, and state law limits the takeover to no more than one school per district over a five-year contract. In contrast, Tennessee deployed a $500 million federal grant to intervene in more than 30 schools in the Memphis and Nashville areas.
But based on Policy Watch interviews with local leaders across North Carolina, Hall will have his work cut out for him in some districts.
Some expressed optimism about Hall’s efforts. “If they can come over and take over, whatever it takes to get our children achieving and doing their best, I support it,” says Peggy Wilkins-Chavis, chair of the Robeson County Board of Education.
However, many local board members and administrators who spoke to Policy Watch in recent days expressed deep reservations.
Some worried the state’s program would yield disappointing results, similar to those reported in Michigan, Tennessee and Louisiana, all states that launched like-minded charter takeover programs in the last decade but reported lackluster results, financial headaches and public battles with angry parents.
“Tennessee had a strong amount of money behind it and it still wasn’t a success,” says Linda Welborn, school board member in Guilford County, which includes three elementaries on the state’s list of eligible schools. “Now we try it in North Carolina with really no sound foundation as to why it’s supposed to be successful, other than North Carolina is different.”
Others predicted outright failure.
“The track record of this program has been pretty dismal. I don’t see anything in the state of North Carolina that gives me any confidence that we’re going to do this any better,” says Steve Unruhe, vice chairman of the Durham County Board of Education. In Durham, five local elementary schools made the initial list.
Nevertheless, the proposal, which passed last year amid often-bitter clashes over K-12 reforms in the N.C. General Assembly, found a welcome audience among school choice supporters and Republican leadership in Raleigh. It also had the financial backing of a wealthy school choice supporter from Oregon behind a growing chain of charter operators.
One of the model’s biggest supporters, Charlotte attorney and former state lawmaker Rob Bryan, called the district “another tool in the toolbox” for K-12 leaders grappling with long-struggling schools.
And Hall emphasized this week that the Innovative School District’s efforts will, if anything, continue to inform public school leaders on how best to combat the pervasive impacts of poverty on K-12 students.
“That’s the benefit of the ISD,” Hall adds. “It’s not about growing a portfolio. It’s about growing a community of practice.”
Hall also says yearly progress reports on performance in the takeover schools will keep charter operators accountable.
“I took this job focused on students and student outcomes,” said Hall. “I’ve always said it has to be about students and it has to be about partnership, but it has to be partnership that’s based on accountability. Otherwise, it’s irresponsible.”
Hall adds that a district leadership’s opinion of the charter takeover model won’t sway a final decision on whether a school is selected by state leaders.
“If the data points to a school that’s been struggling for far too long with too many students not meeting growth, my commitment is to listen to local boards and communities for the rationale,” he said. “But my lens is going to be about the kids. My lens can’t necessarily be about what adults want.”
Regardless, multiple district leaders who spoke to Policy Watch say they expect broad opposition to a potential charter takeover in their communities.
“My kid is not going to a takeover school,” said Matt Sears, a member of Durham’s school board and the parent of a second-grader at Lakewood Elementary, which was included on last week’s list of prospective schools.
Sears, who also serves as treasurer for the school’s Parent-Teacher Association, said he would enroll his child elsewhere. “Though it would hurt me,” he said. “I would be divesting from all the work I put into building a school where teachers want to work and children want to go to school.”
Sears adds that last week’s news comes at a particularly inopportune time for the school, which recently welcomed a much-anticipated new principal and is in the midst of working with officials in the state’s school transformation office to deploy the “Restart” reform model, which would provide for charter-like flexibility in the schools.
“When you come in our building, you know it is a place of good things happening,” he said. “This is not the tough school that you see in the movies. This is a place that is stacked with highly-qualified professionals that are working to overcome society’s inequities in a six-year time span from kindergarten through fifth grade.”
Unruhe, also with the Durham school board, says he expects that parents in each of the county’s schools eyed for takeover will be incensed.
“People want their schools to be responsive to local control,” he said. “People won’t be happy to see the state impose a system on those schools.”
Sears says schools like Lakewood need a “full-force attack” on poverty, meaning additional state funding for social services, child care, health care, pre-K and smaller class sizes, as well as a stabilized teacher pipeline.
Other local school leaders who spoke to Policy Watch also emphasized the need for much-greater state funding. It’s a frequent criticism of state lawmakers in recent years, with North Carolina’s per-pupil spending ranking among the lowest in the nation.
Meanwhile, with many district leaders requesting greater flexibility over curriculum, calendars and spending, local schools have been largely rebuffed by state lawmakers, board members said, although Hall’s district includes allowances for an “Innovation Zone” or “I-Zone” opening up charter-like flexibilities for certain low-performing schools.
“They continue to constrict public education, the movement of money, just about every aspect,” said Welborn. “They’re not giving us more flexibility. They’re doing the boa constrictor on us.”
Welborn, a Republican, also questioned the motives of some GOP state lawmakers who backed the Innovative School District and the charter management organizations who stand to gain from the district.
“Is it truly about improving education or is it truly about the profit?” said Welborn. “I tend to go with the second.”
Not all of those districts named on the state’s prospective takeover list were rankled by the idea. Wilkins-Chavis, chair of the Robeson County school board, says a change is past due for some long-struggling schools.
“Nothing has worked in the past three years,” she says. “There’s got to be a change somewhere.”
Wilkins-Chavis adds that she’s optimistic about the program, despite its results in other states.
“If the state takes over, if they are successful, and I really hope they are, then I would like them to bring what they did for other teachers, other principals,” she said. “Let that be a role model so they would know what to do.”
Jennifer Strickland, the school board’s vice chair in Wayne County, which counts four eligible schools, also backs a charter takeover, describing herself as a “big supporter” of school choice.
“If I hadn’t won a seat on the school board, I would have homeschooled my children,” she added.
Despite the differences of opinion on charter takeover though, most criticized state leadership over public school funding. “The state is failing the children too,” said Wilkins-Chavis. “They’re not putting the funds where their mouth is.”
Sears said districts need a comprehensive rethinking of how North Carolina funds public education.
“We’ve got to do it all,” he said. “We need an acknowledgement from the state that poverty matters. And, along with that, a commitment to do something about it.”