Since a North Carolina law cleared the option for charter-like flexibilities in some low-performing schools beginning last March, members of the state’s top school board have approved more than 100 applications.
Applications have come in by the dozens for the so-called “Restart” program, with struggling schools seeking the same kinds of freedoms charters receive when it comes to their calendar, staffing, curriculum and hours.
But State Board of Education members saw a new trend when they gathered for their monthly meeting in December. Just three schools—located in Northampton and New Hanover counties—were seeking Restart approval from the board.
That’s a marked slowdown from months past, says Bill Cobey, chairman of the board, and he hopes it’s not the new norm.
“I was excited districts had this option,” says Cobey.
Traditional public school leaders have long sought the kinds of flexibilities wielded by North Carolina charters—publicly-funded, K-12 schools empowered to innovate in an effort to attain better academic results. However, state lawmakers have only agreed to extend those flexibilities to recurring low-performing schools, or those graded “low-performing” in two of the last three years.
A school’s status is determined by its academic performance and growth, as defined by the General Assembly.
And, although the first batch of accountability data on Restart schools won’t come in until February, school district leaders say they believe charter freedoms will allow some traditional public schools to boost test scores.
Restart status is one of four options available to continually struggling schools. Schools may also opt for the “turnaround” or “transformation” models, which include replacing the principal, enhanced professional development and increased classroom time, or they may file for school closure.
Since March 2016, all but two of the state’s approved 111 applications filed by struggling schools opted for Restart. Yet, for the moment, the state has seen a slowdown, Nancy Barbour, director of the state’s District and School Transformation office acknowledges.
Barbour says she’s not certain it will last. She points out her office received a new Restart application Wednesday and state board members are expected to weigh several pending applications in February and March.
But Barbour says that she believes districts were simply pausing as state officials finalized a new round of testing data in October.
“Be careful what you talk about, because it’ll change as soon as it gets out of your mouth,” she added.
However, state and local district leaders who spoke to Policy Watch this week say districts are also grappling with the financial complications of Restart status.
Charter flexibility can be more expensive, officials point out, as schools look to extend their hours and calendars while boosting support for classrooms and teacher development.
Leanne Winner, director of governmental affairs for the N.C School Boards Association, which lobbies for local boards in Raleigh, says some school systems are coming to terms with those impacts today.
“Concepts and ideas, when you try to implement them, you suddenly come face to face with difficulties you didn’t identify,” adds Cobey. “It’s certainly doable, but I don’t perceive this as an easy thing to do.”
Others say the financial implications of Restart status are complicated by the state’s lingering class-size funding crisis. As Policy Watch has reported, district leaders across North Carolina have warned of enormous financial blows should state lawmakers’ mandate to chop class sizes in early grades go into effect without additional funding or leverage.
Legislators’ order to shrink class sizes would necessitate more classroom space and more teachers working in “core” subjects such as English and math, endangering positions for “specialty” elementary teachers in music, arts and theater.
The class-size drama directly informed Durham school board members’ decision last week to back off on approved Restart applications for 14 low-performing schools, says Mike Lee, chairman of the Durham Board of Education.
“It’s kind of a domino effect,” says Lee.
Lee says the board will now proceed with charter reforms in just two of those schools, Glenn and Lakewood elementary schools, two of the district’s lowest-performing schools. Both were on the shortlist this year for a controversial charter takeover program called the Innovative School District.
Durham’s school board chair says districts facing the financial headaches of the legislature’s class-size order will have to choose between obeying state law or proceeding with a voluntary program like Restart.
They’re likely to cut costs with the “voluntary” effort, he says.
Although Lee says he doesn’t have an estimate on the cost of charter flexibility in Durham, school officials reportedly estimated implementation in all 14 schools would cost millions, according to The Durham Herald-Sun.
“That’s a little bit high of a hill to climb as it relates to finance and the man-hours,” said Lee. “We want to take a step back. Let’s do this great in two schools and reassess at the end of the year.”
Lee said state legislators should back off on their class-size demands, and also attach grant funding with the Restart program if they want to boost access.
“Because we are absolutely in support of the model itself,” he said. “We really like the idea of the program.”
Cobey says he understands districts’ reservations. “My mantra has always been: ‘Better to do it right than in a hurry,’” he said.
But Cobey hopes state and local leaders are able to encourage the program across North Carolina. “I hope it bounces back,” he says.
In January, state board members will consider Restart applications for Willis Hare Elementary in Northampton County, as well as applications for A.H. Snipes Academy of Arts and Design and R. Freeman School of Engineering in New Hanover County.