Faced with accepting charter takeover or closing a struggling elementary, leaders in at least one eastern North Carolina town say they may pick closure over the state’s controversial Innovative School District.
“That’s not ideal,” says Sen. Angela Bryant , a three-term Democrat who represents Rocky Mount in the N.C. General Assembly. “But we are not interested in the innovation zone.”
Rocky Mount’s Williford Elementary is one of six schools included on a short-list for the Innovative School District (ISD), which could allow for-profit, charter management organizations to ink five-year contracts with the state in hopes of turning around test scores at selected low-performing schools.
Charter operators would control day-to-day operations and staffing at the schools, with annual checkups on academic progress. Over the next two years, North Carolina leaders are expected to choose five schools for the new program, with the first two selected by the State Board of Education in December.
Under state law, schools chosen can accept the takeover or close. In that scenario, students and staff would be reassigned in the district, but would not face takeover by a private, charter organization.
Bryant says closure is an increasingly favored option among many residents, but for now, she says top priority for residents in Rocky Mount is convincing state leaders to exclude them altogether.
“There doesn’t seem to be much in here about education,” adds Bryant. “It seems more about charter management companies putting money into lawmakers. And they’re going to come in here and do better with the same (state funding)? I don’t see it.”
Schools eligible for the state-run district, most situated in high-poverty neighborhoods, reported performance scores in the bottom five percent statewide and hadn’t met or exceeded growth goals in at least one of the prior three school years.
Williford Elementary , a Title I school of about 460 in eastern North Carolina’s Nash-Rocky Mount School District, reported failing grades in reading and math, according to their 2015-2016 report card .
District leaders declined to discuss their plans in detail this week, but Lois Watkins, a city councilwoman in Rocky Mount who organized a hastily-assembled community meeting this week, acknowledged closure is a real possibility for Williford Elementary.
In the meantime, she said residents have numerous questions about the accountability of any private organization that would potentially assume control of their school.
“What’s important to me as a leader in the community is that we are fully informed and engaged,” Watkins said. “If it’s a private company, what amount of involvement will the community have?”
Leaders like Bryant say locals are particularly rankled by the “coercive” nature of the charter takeover model, which was a favorite of most GOP state lawmakers and a handful of Democrats.
The proposal was backed by school choice supporters and charter management organizations as well, despite mixed results , public clashes with community members  and reports of financial irregularities  in similar takeover models in states such as Tennessee and Louisiana.
ISD Superintendent Eric Hall has been visiting district leaders in recent days to assess districts’ needs, with plans of making recommended selections to the State Board of Education in the coming weeks.
And, while he could not be reached for this report, Hall told Policy Watch last week that North Carolina’s takeover district is much smaller than the Tennessee program, which utilized millions in federal grants to intervene in more than 30 schools in the Memphis and Nashville areas.
“My task is making folks understand this is so different from the models in Tennessee and Louisiana,” Hall said.
However, districts with schools on the short-list have had differing reactions to the proposal already.
In Robeson County, which has two elementary schools up for consideration, at least one top K-12 leader indicated locals were eager for change. Northampton County, home to one school on the shortlist, has been relatively quiet.
And in Durham, where two schools—Lakewood Elementary and Glenn Elementary—are eligible, leaders have been bitterly opposed , although officials have said local opposition isn’t likely to dissuade state leaders  from choosing a prospective school for the district.
“It is laughable that it’s nearly October 1 and you think you can come to understand our community and our community’s needs by coming to some meetings and doing a two-day school visit,” said Matt Sears, a Durham school board member with a child enrolled at Lakewood Elementary.
“The school communities are far too rich and complex and diverse in numbers and in the experience of people,” said Sears. “That you think you have enough to judge us speaks to how poor this process is.”
Sears declined to say whether the board would mull closing any Durham schools, but in a heated board meeting Thursday, Durham leaders ruled nothing out when it comes to rebuffing a charter takeover.
Sears added that the proposed charter takeover has prompted great “anxiety” from parents.
“Our school communities are going to make sure that every level of decision-maker around this failed idea is going to know the negative impacts it’s going to have,” said Sears. “Durham is not going to stand for a loss of public accountability for our schools.”
Despite the often angry rebuttals, supporters of the Innovative School District say these long-struggling schools are overdue for change.
Rep. Cecil Brockman, a High Point Democrat who co-sponsored last year’s bill to legalize the reform model, says chronically lagging public schools, particularly those that serve African-American children, have failed parents.
“This is a crisis for me,” says Brockman. “This type of reform tries to address the crisis that’s going on right now in our state. It is not acceptable for any race, in my opinion, to be not on grade level at this rate. If it were the majority of students, we’d be talking about shutting down all of our schools.”
Brockman said he fought to include the option for local leaders to shutter a school if they chose.
“They can decide what they think is best for their counties,” he said. “If they think shutting that school down that’s not doing the job of teaching our kids and hasn’t been, if they decide to finally do something that is a better option for their community, that’s great. Then we can use those tax dollars to allocate to schools and principals who are teaching our kids.”
The state lawmaker added that he’s not concerned if anyone takes offense to his criticism of such struggling schools. He also slammed other Democrats who he says are willing to accept the “status quo.”
“It is an offensive conversation to begin with,” Brockman said. “But these kids aren’t learning. Whoever’s fault it is, the numbers are the numbers. Out of all the schools in North Carolina, these are the worst. We cannot allow our kids to go to these schools that are not teaching them.”
Meanwhile, State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey told Policy Watch this week that locals in struggling districts should be open to new ideas.
“There is reason to believe that they’ve had plenty of time to deal with these failing schools,” Cobey said. “I would hope that, as we go through the process, they would be willing to accept the fact that maybe we need to try to do something different.”
But opponents of the proposed charter takeover say the criticism of school leaders in these often low-income locales is unfair. Public schools aren’t properly funded in North Carolina, says Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, which advocates for the state’s teachers at the General Assembly.
“This is at a time when we have resources still not at the level we were pre-recession,” says Jewell. “We’re looking at school districts and saying, ‘Why aren’t you doing better?’ They’re having to do more with fewer and fewer resources.”
Overall school funding is a frequent complaint among public school advocates. A national report this year estimated the state’s per-pupil spending would fall to 43rd in the nation.
Jewell also pointed to the model’s mixed results in other states as reason for pause. “I think the school districts are the best equipped to direct that type of change,” said Jewell. “I don’t think that turning them over to a for-profit company is going to give you the type of transformation we want for these kids.”
Jewell added that he doesn’t blame school districts like Nash-Rocky Mount if they consider closing a school rather than accepting a charter takeover.
“You can see why they would want to keep their children. We want to take responsibility for them.”
Watkins says locals don’t fear change. They fear a loss of control.
“If there is funding available, why can’t it go to our schools as they are currently existing?” Watkins said. “Why aren’t they willing to stay in the current system, or revise it? But to take it away and put it under a for-profit system, they think that’s going to work? We’re really skeptical.”