North Carolina’s controversial Innovative School District needs more time to tap a private operator that’s expected to take over a struggling Robeson County elementary this year.
ISD Superintendent Eric Hall asked and received permission from the State Board of Education for an additional 60 days Thursday, after an independent consultant’s review cited numerous concerns with the only two applicants, a new nonprofit from Charlotte and a for-profit company from Michigan.
“I still have several questions that need to be answered before I could pick either of the organizations,” Hall told Policy Watch. “It’s about setting a high standard. I want to make sure that, for the county and the town of Rowland, we want to get this right.”
Hall hinted the delay was a possibility in a Policy Watch report last month, as state officials pressed up against the Feb. 15 statutory deadline for choosing an operator. State leaders hired an outside company, Massachusetts-based School Works, to conduct a review of potential takeover operators, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the applicants.
State legislators created the program—which would allow a private charter or education management company to take over a public school—two years ago as an intervention for long-struggling schools.
Public school advocates declared the proposal little more than a privatization scheme that yielded lackluster results in similar efforts in Tennessee, Louisiana and Michigan.
But state legislators, most of them Republicans, said fresh ideas were needed to galvanize lagging schools.
Hall received just two applicants for the district’s first takeover at Southside-Ashpole Elementary, a low-performing PK-5 school in Robeson County, where roughly 87 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged.
One applicant, Achievement for All Children (AAC), formed last year under the leadership of several prominent school choice backers, including a former state lawmaker who led the push to create the takeover district.
AAC cited its plans to partner with a growing charter network, TeamCFA, in its application, but the state’s consultant (the private firm SchoolWorks) questioned whether the group—which had yet to ink any contract with TeamCFA—should be deemed eligible for the takeover program, given state law calls for an operator with a “record of results” turning around low-performing schools.
Furthermore, the consultant characterized TeamCFA, which runs 13 schools in North Carolina, as having a “mixed” record of student achievement in its schools.
And while SchoolWorks complimented AAC’s “strong commitment” to serving Southside-Ashpole students, the firm wrote that AAC’s instructional program was “vague and lacked specificity.” Additionally, the consultant noted AAC’s “limited funds” budgeted for exceptional children and speech services.
The consultant’s review of the second applicant, The Romine Group, also pointed to a “mixed” record of results in its schools, which includes eight in Michigan and one in Fayetteville.
The group’s North Carolina school, The Capitol Encore Academy in Fayetteville, is a K-8 charter serving more than 350 students, roughly half of whom are considered “economically disadvantaged.”
According to the school’s 2016-2017 state report card, Capitol Encore Academy earned an overall performance grade of “D” but just met student growth expectations.
The Romine Group’s application also “lacked detail and specificity,” the consultant wrote. “It’s unclear what the instructional program will be and how it will dramatically increase student achievement.”
Representatives for The Romine Group and Achievement for All Children could not be reached for comment by Policy Watch Thursday, but Hall said he hopes to delve deeper into the groups’ curriculum plans, funding allocation and plans for exceptional children over the next two months.
“It’s a lot of basic questions that we know are important in the day-to-day operations of the school,” he said.
If neither organization separates itself, Hall said he has permission from the state board to accept new applications.
While he hasn’t received any interest from a third organization, Hall predicted he would after this month’s delay.
“We’re really starting to define what is an innovative school operator in this state,” Hall said.