When Appalachian State University opens its Academy at Middle Fork to 300 chosen elementary students in Winston-Salem this August, by some accounts, it’ll be one of several pioneering, university-led efforts bound to turn around test scores for lagging North Carolina children in the coming years.
Part of the state legislature’s mandated “lab school” experiment, which would allow burnished UNC teaching schools to operate traditional public school classrooms much like charters, GOP supporters in the General Assembly say they hope the partnership will speed innovative teaching methods to underdeveloped districts and simultaneously prep the next generation of North Carolina educators.
It’s a big, ambitious proposal that appears to have the support of top UNC system brass. Last month, President Margaret Spellings  claimed the state’s universities are “thrilled” to be leading the effort, even as she seemed to acknowledge the growing pains of creating nine such lab schools by 2019-2020.
Yet, at a time when state lawmakers often find themselves under fire for their public school interventions—be it vouchers, Education Savings Accounts or a still-gestating private takeover of low-performing schools —the lab school project has sustained limited public scrutiny and a tepid acceptance from many public school advocates.
But critics of the oft-overlooked initiative say the state and the university system may face an uphill battle to make lawmakers’ project work, amid long-running whispers that the system has neither the funding nor the time to make such an undertaking succeed.
“This is a train-wreck, waiting to happen,” says Stephen Leonard, an associate professor of political science at UNC-Chapel Hill. Leonard, the former chair of UNC’s system-wide Faculty Assembly , which advises UNC administrators on system issues, says faculty bristled when state Senate lawmakers tucked the lab school plan into a little-debated budget provision in 2016.
“There’s a lot of grumbling about having the legislature step in and tell them what to do with their time and research,” says Leonard.
The program, which Leonard describes as “expropriating” university staff, lacks sufficient funding for the “state-of-the-art” education it purports to offer, depending on state and local officials to transfer traditional school dollars to universities much as they do for charters.
State law orders that a prospective lab school’s staff and students must re-apply for jobs or enrollment, a provision that Leonard describes as undermining the qualification of the state’s K-12 teachers.
And it conscripts university professors and trustees, long charged with preparing the state’s new teaching stars, into the day-to-day grind of running a public school, something they may be wholly unprepared to take on, he says.
Leonard’s not the only critic. The N.C. Association of Educators, the state’s largest advocacy organization for K-12 teachers, has yet to align behind the program, and seems unlikely to do so.
NCAE President Mark Jewell told Policy Watch that the effort is a “distraction” when legislators should be focusing on boosting their investment in public schools. The state’s per-pupil spending ranks a lowly 43rd in the nation, according to the nonpartisan National Education Association .
“This came from nowhere,” says Jewell. “The universities didn’t ask for it. The school districts weren’t asking for it.”
Indeed, Leonard says, universities didn’t seek the legislative tinkering, but they may have to make due.
“It’s badly-designed, badly-funded, and badly-implemented,” says Leonard. “And that’s not good for anyone, particularly the students.”
That’s how Sheri Everts, chancellor for Appalachian State University, described the university’s lab school project in Winston-Salem last month in a message to staff.
“The Academy will be a living laboratory of educational research, collaboration, outreach and impact that will be life-changing for more than 300 K-8 students who will be reminded daily that a college education can become their reality,” wrote Everts.
Members of UNC’s Board of Governors, now dominated by Republicans, were equally enthusiastic in their praise for the GOP-steered lab school initiative, which they say will ultimately offer slightly varying models of instruction tailored to the communities they serve across North Carolina.
“Every time a child is educated, that’s a plus for the economy,” board member C. Philip Byers, head of the panel’s lab school subcommittee, said in an Ed N.C. report last month.
“Our legislators so often look at how does the taxpayer benefit. This is going to be a tremendous benefit to the taxpayer,” said Byers, who’s also a top official in TeamCFA, a charter school chain with more than a dozen schools in North Carolina.
University leadership has approved five schools thus far, two that have already begun operations. East Carolina University is working in a Greenville elementary, while Western Carolina University pilots The Catamount School in Sylva.
Board members cleared three more programs, including Appalachian State University’s Winston-Salem project, last month. Two more lab schools in Rockingham and New Hanover counties will open this year under the direction of education schools at UNC-Greensboro and UNC-Wilmington, respectively.
Three more are in the works at UNC-Pembroke, UNC-Charlotte and N.C. Central University, while the system is currently seeking one more institution to eventually open a ninth lab school, says UNC spokesman Josh Ellis.
The lab school concept, in and of itself, isn’t new to K-12 education. University leaders have long worked with traditional public schools to brainstorm new methods of teaching in American schools, although North Carolina’s program, which models such schools after charters, is unique.
University leaders, like charters, will operate with relaxed regulations for curriculum, calendar and staffing. Indeed, where traditional state schools require a license of any classroom teacher, state statute mandates that only 50 percent in charters and lab schools will need a license, a boon for lateral-entry educators , supporters say.
“For all practical purposes, a lab school is a charter school,” says Rep. Craig Horn, an influential Union County Republican who co-chairs the state House K-12 committee. “It is a public school with a unique twist to its mission.”
Local districts would continue to provide transportation and food, including free or reduced lunches, to lab school students, while also redirecting state and local per-pupil dollars to the school’s university leadership.
And, theoretically, lab schools would operate in districts that most need assistance. State law initially ordered that at least 25 percent of schools in a district must be considered “low-performing” for a district to qualify, although, with some universities still seeking district partners, legislators allowed for a waiver process for that provision last year. 
Horn, who co-sponsored last year’s lab school modifications, is bullish on the program’s prospects.
“This is a real opportunity to enhance how we both prepare teachers to be teachers and to connect teacher preparation programs to the real-world challenges of running a school on a day-to-day basis,” said Horn.
UNC leadership seems likewise hopeful. And Ellis says administrators expect to meet the state’s 2019-2020 deadline for launching nine programs.
“Students are currently benefiting from personalized programs in a smaller setting,” says Ellis. “Universities are gaining insights into the practical realities of operating schools.”
But, despite seemingly broad support among UNC administration and Republican state legislators, critics of the effort say it lacks a clear direction and measurable goals, while its harshest detractors compare lab schools to an outright betrayal of traditional public schools by higher education leaders who are supposed to build the state’s K-12 system.
“It really does represent a final surrender and abdication of our responsibilities to the kids in the public schools,” says Allen Bryant, an associate professor of elementary education at Appalachian State’s Reich College of Education.
Bryant says some faculty and alumni of the Boone school are “outraged” over the university’s involvement at Middle Fork Elementary, a low-performing PreK-5 school just northeast of Winston-Salem.
The school’s enrollment—nearly 67 percent of which is considered economically disadvantaged—is drawn from the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools district. According to its state report card , Middle Fork earned “F” scores in reading and math in 2016-2017, but met or exceeded growth expectations in both subjects.
“We’re not going in to improve or work with this school or partner with this school,” said Bryant. “What we’re doing is we’re taking over the building to run a charter school.”
Bryant said he finds the lab school’s staffing and enrollment provisions, which require that teachers and students re-apply for jobs and enrollment, particularly galling.
“We are firing all of the teachers,” said Bryant. “They are invited to reapply, which is as dehumanizing and belittling as you could imagine. And we’ve been instructed not to call it ‘firing,’ but when we walk in there and fire them all, we are agreeing with the legislature that it’s because of the incompetent teachers.”
Like all lab schools in the new program, current Middle Fork students won’t be guaranteed admission next year. Admission is open on a “first-come, first serve” basis for any child in the lab school’s local district provided they’re enrolled in a low-performing school or did not meet their individual growth goals on state test scores. “Priority” enrollment is granted to those who did not meet expected student growth.
Applications to Middle Fork will be accepted through April, with the first day of school slated for August, although Bryant said communicating with families in the struggling school has been difficult for the university as it preps for opening.
Bryant said the turnover within the school’s staff and student population will be vexing to any fair study of the program’s success or failure.
“As a researcher, how can one make assessments based on it?” said Bryant. “Firing every teacher and kicking out the kids, we’ll be working with a different data set.”
District and school board leaders in Winston-Salem/Forsyth schools didn’t agree to an interview with Policy Watch to talk over the Appalachian State lab school. But university spokeswoman Megan Hayes said officials are “working hard to get clear and accurate information” to prospective Middle Fork families.
“We want to ensure all children who wish to attend, including those who are currently enrolled in Middle Fork Elementary, have the admissions information they need,” said Hayes. “It is important to note that admissions for the school are driven by statute, and are open to all qualifying children in the district. All children must apply.”
Hayes added that the university’s leadership is “committed” to the success of the Middle Fork program, and that Appalachian State feels “strongly supported” by the UNC system.
But Bryant’s criticism of the burgeoning lab school echoes that of other university personnel, legislators, local district leaders and policy advocates who spoke to Policy Watch in recent days.
Jewell, of the NCAE, called the program’s framework, particularly its allowances for teacher licensure, “puzzling.”
“Why would you put it under the control of the universities that are supposed to be the innovators of incubation with teaching and not have them be licensed by a teaching program?” Jewell said.
Jewell added that the university lab schools seem more like a “takeover” than an intervention.
“Here you have school districts that have an obligation to make sure every school does well, and here it’s been snatched away from them.”
Rep. Graig Meyer, an Orange County Democrat and former K-12 administrator who sits on the House Education Committee, said he was concerned with the effort’s funding and design.
“It seems like someone had a bright idea and enough power to get that idea into the budget,” said Meyer. “But this program has no real plan behind it and doesn’t seem to be connected to any overall approach to improving North Carolina schools.”
Rep. Horn indicated some criticism is to be expected.
“Lab schools are a new concept for North Carolina and not everything works for everyone,” Horn said. “Lab schools are meant to be both a teaching and learning environment for both student and teacher. They are opportunities to reach out to the community as well for support and involvement.”
Horn also seemed to bristle at opposition from the NCAE, a nonpartisan organization that tends to support Democrats. The organization angered some conservatives last month when it broke tradition by announcing that it would not invite  the state’s Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction, Mark Johnson, to the organization’s annual convention in March following Johnson’s controversial comments about teacher pay .
“NCAE has clearly demonstrated that they are not interested in hearing from anyone that does not fall into line with their agenda,” said Horn. “My record is clear and strong in support of fairly funding the terrific teachers we have in North Carolina and in seeking ways to improve the delivery of education so that every student can achieve.”
But UNC’s Leonard called the program a “recipe for tension and conflict” between universities and local school systems.
Leonard said one Appalachian State official told members of a Board of Governors’ subcommittee last month that they were grappling with unfamiliar tasks like managing trash pickup in their partner school, a notion he described as “silly.”
And Leonard said school districts lack incentive, from a financial or personnel standpoint, to turn over a school and its staff to the university system.
“If I was a local school board member or superintendent, I’d be spitting mad,” Leonard added. “And if I was a parent in one of these districts where it was forced down their throat, I’d be furious too.”
Alan Faulk is superintendent of Columbus County Schools, a relatively low-income district of about 5,600 just west of Wilmington. UNC-Wilmington’s education program sought a partnership with Faulk’s district in 2016, but university leadership said last year that lab school negotiations with the county fell through for unspecified reasons.
This week, Faulk told Policy Watch the district supports future team-ups with UNC-Wilmington, which he says has partnered with Columbus County Schools in the past. But he questioned whether small, rural districts like his could sustain the significant financial blow of diverting enrollment dollars to universities.
“We were asked to give up our entire school with no involvement in it,” said Faulk. “It’s like we really were not needed.”
And, although he did not cite one specific school mulled for a lab school conversion, Faulk said district officials were loath to jeopardize teaching positions for current staff and students’ enrollment in any Columbus County school.
“These schools are a hub of the community,” he said. “Parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, they understand that schools are part of their community.”
But Faulk indicated that districts could benefit from the lab school program’s success, provided state officials offer financial boons to districts and allow colleges the flexibility to lead the schools with a minimum of legislative interference.
“I think if the university is going to basically assume the responsibility, they need to be given the freedom to do so,” he said. “They should become the experts.”
State law provides for annual reporting from UNC to the legislature on the program, and Ellis said administrators are in the midst of an “initiative-wide evaluation of the program to measure the impact of the work with regard to student performance and the performance of educators trained at the site.”
Ellis did not provide any additional details this week on what that evaluation entails, but UNC officials are expected to turn over a report assessing the program’s “educational effectiveness” in November to the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee.
Last year’s report  to the joint committee did not provide any details on the new program’s effectiveness, but UNC Interim Vice President for University & P-12 Partnerships Sean Bulson told lawmakers that the system’s operational lab schools in Greenville and Sylva had enrolled 129 of 178 applicants.
Of those enrolled, 54 percent are African-American students, and 39 percent are white. No details were given on any other racial demographics.
The program’s enrollment numbers are significantly different than the traditional school population, where African-American students make up about 25 percent of enrollment and white students account for almost 49 percent. Hispanic students, meanwhile, make up about 17 percent of traditional school enrollment.