Conservative ideologues may yet succeed in their longstanding effort to raze and remake American public education – what they often derisively refer to as “government schools.” After all, they’ve been at it for decades and show no signs of letting up. Add to this the fact that the plutocrats funding the effort – the Kochs, the DeVoses the Bradleys – appear to have bottomless supplies of cash and it seems unlikely that the conservative crusade will completely peter out anytime soon.
All that said; you’d also have to think that, at some point, the movement will need to generate some kind of colorable claims of genuine success in order for large swaths of the public to keep buying into the propaganda about “choice” and “opportunity.” With the Right having wrested complete control of the federal government and those of dozens of states like North Carolina, it would also seem that “put up or shut up” time can’t be too much further off.
Here in North Carolina, for example, conservatives are now several years into implementing their agenda for “reform” – big funding cuts, private school vouchers, an expanded and partially privatized network of charter schools and, most recently, a scheme to turn struggling schools over to private charter operators – but the whole project continues to be marked by an obvious lack of results and, perhaps even more notably, a startling lack of genuine innovation, promising new ideas or even impressive new actors.
The Innovative School District scam
If there’s a poster child for the Right’s repeated stumbles in its education crusade in North Carolina, it would be hard to top the Innovative School District (formerly known as the “Achievement School District”) scheme. As Policy Watch Education Reporter Billy Ball has documented on numerous occasions over the last several months, the premise behind the ISD is a seemingly simple one: state officials are to identify some of the state’s lowest performing public schools and then arrange to transfer their control from the local elected school district board over to private interests – what the law refers to as “qualified Innovative School operators.”
The idea, of course, is that the private actors will be freed from the constraints of traditional education bureaucracy and bring all sorts of wondrous improvements to the schools selected. The plan was inspired by similar efforts in other states, though controversy has swirled around the idea since its inception and experiences in Louisiana and Tennessee have been mixed at best.
Unfortunately – or perhaps, fortunately, depending upon one’s point of view – the effort to launch the ISD has thus far been just this side of a complete disaster.
First, came the efforts to merely identify a collection of schools that would be candidates for such a takeover (which commenced long before any clear picture has emerged as to the organization that might be selected to assume control).
To say that local school districts were not falling all over themselves to be selected would be an understatement. Multiple districts spoke up and made plain that not only did they not wish to be selected for the experiment, they would go so far as to close any school in question rather than surrender its control to some unknown private entity.
The law in question anticipated that the ISD would include five schools, but it quickly became apparent that state officials would be lucky to find even a single local district willing to sacrifice a school to the experiment.
Ultimately, after much angst and repeated flip flops from local officials, a single school, Southside Ashpole Elementary in Robeson County was selected as the sole member of the ISD for 2018-19.
Having finally selected a struggling, low-income school for the experiment (about 87 percent of the students at Southside Ashpole are considered “economically disadvantaged”), state officials next moved on to the matter of who would actually handle the takeover.
Remarkably, however, there were even fewer candidates for this job than there were unlucky schools from which to select. Ultimately, the choice came down to just two entitles:
- Achievement for All Children (AAC), a nonprofit based in Rutherford County run by a former state legislator named Rob Bryan and which has no record at all in running schools (though Bryan actually sponsored the legislation to create what became the ISD), and
- The Romine Group, a for-profit out of Michigan, that runs eight schools in Michigan and one in North Carolina. (The North Carolina school received an overall performance grade of “D” and barely met student growth expectations in its most recent report card).
Last week, a divided state Board of Education voted 7-4 to select the AAC group despite strong concerns from multiple board members and outside observers that the group has essentially zero experience in turning around schools of any kind, as well as a critical review from a state consultant which found that the group “met expectations” in just four of eleven categories and “does not meet expectations” in the critical area of “special programs and at-risk students.”
After all that, this is the plan?
So that’s it. After years of effort, the best the conservative movement could produce with what had been promised to be a transformative program was the takeover of a single troubled school by an inexperienced and politically-connected nonprofit. Talk about an unholy confluence of ideology and questionable ethics.
An Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial on WRAL.com rightfully lambasted the substance and the appearance of the decision. After pointing out Bryan’s insider connections, as well as AAC’s dreadful assessment by the state consultant (and Innovative School District Superintendent Eric Hall’s strange explanation that AAC nonetheless had “a very strong commitment” to turning things around at Southside Ashpole), the editorial concluded this way:
That is a lot of optimism with little track record or evidence to back it up.
The Innovative School District has faced enough challenges in its against-the-odds effort at launching. Communities where takeovers were proposed vehemently opposed it. It was only under the threat that schools might be closed, that a single elementary school in Robeson County has acquiesced.
If the Innovative School District has any chance at success, the state Board of Education needs to bring a stop to the selection of Achievement for All Children to run the school. It should re-open the process, seek more potential operators and give them a full and open evaluation.
If the state Board unwisely moves ahead with hiring Achievement for All Children, the Office of State Budget and Management should do a thorough review of the organization and any conflicts of interest before releasing a penny for the program.”
A familiar pattern
The editorial is right, of course. But it’s also true that something similar could be said about any number of the Right’s agenda items in the world of education – be it private school vouchers, unfettered charter school expansion, the privatization of once publicly-provided school services, or recent plans to allow communities to secede from unified county school districts.
In each of these areas, proponents of conservative change proclaim their commitment to an ideology and a belief that “choice” and “market forces” will bring about better education results for all children. But, time and again, the real world results turn out pretty much the same:
- no measurable improvement in education outcomes,
- more “have” and “have not” schools,
- more racial and economic segregation, and
- more money in the pockets of favored special interests – i.e., private and religious schools and the well-connected private companies and nonprofits that get selected to cash in.
The bottom line: For years now, conservative ideologues and sharp operators have been peddling snake oil “fixes” to American taxpayers for their public schools. If there’s any justice, the dreadful debut of the Innovative School District will help convince North Carolinians, once and for all, to turn a deaf ear to such schemes.