As decision day approaches, local pushback against state-mandated charter takeover heats up

As decision day approaches, local pushback against state-mandated charter takeover heats up

- in Education, Top Story
More than 200 parents and concerned citizens attended a rally Tuesday evening on the proposed charter takeover of Glenn Elementary School. (Photo by Billy Ball)

Cornelius Redfearn, principal at Durham’s Glenn Elementary, said Tuesday night that the looming uncertainty over a possible charter takeover at his school is “weighing on” his teachers.

By week’s end, Redfearn and his staff should get an answer one way or the other. North Carolina officials say district leaders should know by the end of the day Friday whether a key state administrator will recommend their school for the controversial Innovative School District (ISD).

Four state districts—Durham Public Schools, Nash-Rocky Mount Schools, Robeson County Schools and Northampton County Schools—have one school apiece remaining on the state’s shortlist for inclusion next year.

State law sets a Sunday deadline for that notification, but ISD Superintendent Eric Hall says he’s likely to tell local school district leaders Friday, the last business day before that threshold.

“I feel comfortable that we’re in a pretty good place with notifying them by the deadline,” Hall said Tuesday.

Hall said he huddled with Durham K-12 chiefs Tuesday and will meet with school leaders in rural Robeson County Wednesday.

Hall cautioned against extrapolating any meaning from those visits. He says he plans to communicate with leaders in all four districts this week.

In the meantime, leaders expect a few more days of uncertainty over the contentious, state takeover model. Approved by North Carolina lawmakers last year, it could clear for-profit charter operators to assume control over several low-performing schools, all serving predominantly children that hail from low-income families.

School choice supporters, including most Republican lawmakers, backed the proposal, although similar models in states such as Tennessee, Louisiana and Michigan reaped controversy and middling results in recent years.

Earlier state plans suggested Hall was expected to put forth two schools for the ISD next year, followed by another three in the 2019-2020 academic year.

But state law allows Hall some flexibility, meaning he could tap all four remaining schools—a prospect he considered unlikely Tuesday—or just one for the coming year. “It’s all about where we feel like we have the right conditions for success,” he said.

Ultimately, the State Board of Education will have the final say over ISD recommendations. Board members are expected to take a vote in December. State law allows districts to accept the takeover or close their school.

Performance scores among prospective schools rank in the bottom five percent statewide and schools would not have met growth goals in at least one of the prior three years.

Supporters like Hall say the model—which would clear school management contracts for private operators lasting at least five years—will open up the long-struggling schools to new ideas and innovation.

“Our goal is making sure we choose someone with a proven ability to improve outcomes in low-performing schools,” said Hall.

Since September, Hall has narrowed his list of possible schools from 48 to just four, prompting varying responses from local leaders.

In Robeson County, a rural district just south of Fayetteville, at least one top school leader suggested locals are eager for a change and may be amenable to a charter takeover.

And in Rocky Mount, multiple leaders say the district, which is about 60 miles northeast of Raleigh, may lean toward closing their school before going along with the ISD, Policy Watch has reported.

Meanwhile, officials in Durham, the largest school district remaining on the shortlist, have been ardently opposed.

Durham school board chair Mike Lee calls the legislature’s charter takeover proposal part of “larger conspiracy against public schools.” (Photo by Billy Ball)

Durham Board of Education Chair Mike Lee told Policy Watch Tuesday that he wouldn’t rule out closure or even a lawsuit if Hall chooses Glenn Elementary.

“Everything is on the table, every single idea, every single option,” Lee said. “I can’t speak specifically about what we’ve been discussing, but we’re not taking anything off the table.”

Lee spoke before an estimated crowd of about 200 Tuesday at Glenn Elementary. Organized by a group of community activists, educators and leaders, Tuesday’s heated gathering came one week after a similar meet at Durham’s Lakewood Elementary.

At the time, Lakewood was among the prospective recommendations for the takeover district, but, citing state law that allows just one school per district, Hall dropped the elementary a day later.

And, despite assertions to the contrary by state officials, Lee said Tuesday that he believes Durham’s bristling reaction to the state plan will steer the ISD away from Glenn too.

“I’m already claiming that Glenn Elementary is off the list,” he said to cheers.

At times, Tuesday’s gathering had the feel of a pep rally for Glenn Elementary, a K-5 school of about 700 in northeast Durham where approximately 99 percent of students received free or reduced lunch last year, a key indicator of socioeconomic status among a school’s families.

Advocates passed out t-shirts that proclaimed, “You mess with the lions, you with the bull,” a reference to the school and the city’s respective mascots.

“We love Glenn,” read one sign. Or its counterpart, in Spanish: “Amamos a Glenn.” Organizers passed out headsets to Spanish-speaking families, with a translator piping in comments.

Redfearn, meanwhile, says the school—one of 14 in the district already approved for the state’s “Restart reform, which allows charter-like flexibilities—is prepared to turn things around without a state takeover.

“We know we still have work to do,” he said. “But we’re committed to the success of our school and our children.”

Lee said the state’s ISD chief was not prepared for the wave of angry feedback from Durham, which included scores of phone calls, emails and more than 1,500 signatures on an anti-ISD petition.

“What more do you need to know?” said Lee. “Durham is not interested in this experiment.”

Lee added that it’s nothing personal against Hall, the state administrator who’s often been the target of advocates’ critiques.

“You’re just a messenger of a larger conspiracy against public schools,” said Lee.

One Glenn Elementary parent, Paula Clough, praised the teachers at the school, telling a story about a math teacher who worked personally with her to help Clough assist her daughter on her homework.

“She taught me the basic math I need to know to help my baby succeed,” said Clough. “…These children are not based on test scores. Each one can succeed if they have the right resources.”

But Lee said schools like Glenn Elementary aren’t getting sufficient resources from state lawmakers, accusing legislators of intentionally starving public schools to speed privatization.

“You can’t complain about something that’s failing when what you’re doing is trying to make it fail,” said Lee. “It’s not fair, and that’s exactly what they’re doing down in Raleigh.”

Despite the withering criticism and controversies in other states, North Carolina officials say advocates should not rule out the model’s potential benefits.

“I think the good news coming from this is we’re really having some strong, critical conversations around what we need to do to help our schools,” Hall said Tuesday. “My hope is that passion will carry forward, whether they’re with the ISD strategy or under local control.”

That may be one thing ISD detractors and backers can agree on. Redfearn said he hopes that the energized crowd of Glenn Elementary parents that turned out Tuesday stays involved in the school.

“This can’t be like a funeral,” he said. “We need you to come back.”