Supporters of a controversial takeover program in struggling North Carolina schools hoped for a speedy approval of their latest project Wednesday. Instead, dogged by questions about process and a fiery local backlash surrounding a Goldsboro elementary, they’ll have to wait until at least next month for a resolution.
Members of the State Board of Education voted Thursday to delay a decision on Carver Heights Elementary in Wayne County until next month at the latest.
“You don’t have community support there,” board member Tricia Willoughby told leaders of the hotly-debated Innovative School District (ISD), a GOP-spearheaded program that would allow private groups, including for-profit companies, to temporarily seize control of up to five struggling public schools in hopes of boosting performance.
The operator, under state leaders, would head operations and staffing at the schools.
Board member Reginald Kenan, who represents a southeast portion of the state that includes Goldsboro, made the motion to delay approval because he said he believes there are “positive changes” to consider in the school.
“The community needs a little more clarity, exactly what’s going on, what to expect,” said Kenan.
State statute requires a vote on the recommendation by Dec. 15.
The ISD has won support among some, mostly conservative, education reformers, who say the presence of a new school operator will shake things up in long laboring schools.
But opponents, including the N.C. Association of Educators, the state’s largest teacher advocacy organization, liken the program to a private “takeover scheme” of public schools. They also point to the middling efforts of similar programs in states like Tennessee and Michigan.
The state board’s decision creates a multi-week intermission as some Goldsboro education advocates and state officials spar over the brisk process for selecting Carver Heights.
As Policy Watch reported last month, Wayne County locals bristled that state leaders conven
ed a town hall in Goldsboro to discuss the program just days before making their recommendation.
Members of the public were notified two business days in advance of the town hall, meeting public notice requirements under state law, but rankling some in the community who said Goldsboro residents needed more time to be prepared.
“It’s a disservice to the teachers and the staff,” Sylvia Barnes, president of the Wayne County NAACP, told Policy Watch last month.
Nevertheless, an estimated 200 or so education advocates attended the town hall, and many were bitterly critical of the program.
State officials also bypassed town halls in any of the remaining five schools on the shortlist for consideration, which included schools in Northampton, Nash, Alamance, and Guilford counties.
ISD Superintendent LaTeesa Allen told board members Thursday that Carver Heights topped their list because students had the lowest academic marks among the six finalists, which were chosen from the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide.
Allen added that, after conversations with school administrators in all of the remaining districts, her state office believed the Goldsboro school needed the most support.
State Superintendent of Innovation Eric Hall — who, until this summer, served in Allen’s position — acknowledged the strong push-back from some in Goldsboro.
“The passion in this community is real,” said Hall. “But we also have to come to a point where we say only 18.4 percent of our students are proficient in reading and math, where do we go from here?”
The school scored an “F” grade in 2016-2017, according to its state report card, and did not meet growth expectations.
Carver Heights — like many of the schools being considered for the takeover program — serves an especially challenging student population, in which 90 percent of students are considered “economically disadvantaged.” Academic studies persistently note the connection between socioeconomic status and academic performance in American schools.
Willoughby said she backed the recommendation to delay because she also had questions about the “pretty quick timeline” for vetting and ultimately selecting Carver Heights.
“It’s pretty quick to try to come in and make this decision,” said Willoughby.
The recommendation to absorb Carver Heights marks the second public school recommended for the program in as many years. After an often contentious battle in 2017 and 2018, a private nonprofit established just last year won the right to take the helm at Southside-Ashpole Elementary, a school in rural Robeson County.
State leaders are still awaiting data on their first year of operations at Southside-Ashpole, although ISD leaders seemed to suggest their performance may be impacted because hurricanes Florence and Michael forced the school to shutter for a number of days this year.
Board member James Ford said officials will need to review the data to track progress in the Robeson school.
Board member Olivia Holmes Oxendine, who’s also a Robeson County resident, said the state-run program will need a good “ground game” to be successful, requiring regular engagement with local boards and parents.
“The wonder of the ISD is the community piece,” said Oxendine.
However, the process hasn’t been the only controversy surrounding the ISD. As Policy Watch reported this year, the Robeson County operator tapped by the board came fraught with ethical questions. Its leadership included several influential school choice advocates in North Carolina, as well as the former state lawmaker who sponsored the legislation to create the takeover model.