The Innovative School District (ISD), a Republican-backed school reform model that has failed to produce results, could be phased out in two years.
A provision tucked inside the state Senate’s proposed 2021-2023 budget calls for North Carolina to “Transition from the Innovative School District Model” and end plans to select additional schools for the district.
The controversial state program was created by state lawmakers in 2016 to turn around some of the state’s lowest-performing schools. The program allows outside operators, including for-profits and charter management groups, to take over a traditional public school for five years.
Currently, just one school, Southside-Ashpole Elementary in the Robeson County town of Rowland, has been approved for the program. It became an ISD school in 2018 amid widespread protests from the Rowland community and members of the Robeson County school board.
State leaders planned to target several more in the coming years, but after five years and the expenditure of millions of dollars, that now appears unlikely.
“It just seemed doomed from the start because it never had community buy-in,” said Stu Egan, an English teacher in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools who writes about public education and politics and has often criticized the ISD on his website Caffeinated Rage.
David Townsend, the Rowland town clerk who spoke with Policy Watch in 2019 about how the town’s survival is linked to the success of Southside-Ashpole, had not heard about the budget provision until contacted by Policy Watch.
Townsend worried in 2019 that, without a successful elementary school, the small, rural town would continue to lose residents to bigger towns and cities.
“It will be a negative impact on our town,” Townsend said. “More than anything, it’s going to impact small children who will be forced to change again.”
A costly and controversial experiment
The ISD experiment has been an expensive one. The state has spent nearly $5 million on district administration since the 2016-17 school year. That includes money for the superintendent’s salary, as well as travel and administrative positions – all to oversee a single school. (Financial figures for the 2020-21 school year are incomplete, so the total amount spent on administration could increase once those records are finalized.)
Administrative expenses also included a $100,000 per year contract with Achievement for All Children (AAC), a for-profit, charter operator that was selected to manage Southside-Ashpole. An additional $145,000 was spent on salary and benefits for the school’s principal.
During the 2018-19 school year, the ISD began pulling as much as $1.6 million a year from the Public Schools of Robeson County to support Southside-Ashpole.
Robeson superintendent Freddie Williamson did not return phone calls to discuss Southside-Ashpole.
The school is now managed by the NC Department of Public Instruction (DPI). The state board terminated the management agreement with AAC at the start of the 2020-21 school year, apparently over the firm’s inability to provide adequate remote learning during the pandemic.
Derrick Jordan, assistant superintendent of Agency Schools, oversees the ISD. A DPI spokeswoman said he was not available to discuss the school’s future with Policy Watch. Jordan is the former superintendent of the Chatham County Schools.
It’s not clear whether the request to phase out the ISD came from the DPI under the direction of State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, the state board, Republican legislative leaders, or some combination of
Truitt has said that traditional public schools and charters should be closed if they are not performing. She has also praised the state’s “Restart” school reform model that gives traditional public schools charter-like flexibility to operate.
School leaders in Durham and Wayne County have chosen the Restart model for low-performing schools after aggressively resisting inclusion in the ISD. Most reports show that students in those schools have enjoyed more academic success than students at Southside-Ashpole, a school that has consistently received “F” letter grades on the state’s School Report Card.
Under the Restart model, schools can operate free of some of the rules district leaders say prevent them from turning around low-performing schools. The Restart schools, for example, are given more calendar, hiring, and spending flexibility.
A worthy idea or a fundamentally flawed scheme?
Former state lawmakers Rob Bryan and Chad Barefoot, the primary sponsors of the ISD legislation in 2016 (House Bill 1080, which originally dubbed the idea the “Achievement School District”) are no longer in office, so the ISD lost key allies in the General Assembly.
The legislation was modeled after the Achievement School District in Tennessee. The program ultimately didn’t work in Tennessee, which announced a major reset in early 2020 with plans to return 30 ASD schools in Memphis and Nashville to their local districts by 2022. Persistently low scores and enrollment were cited for the “reset.”
Bryan, who also served on the AAC board of directors and is now a member of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, acknowledged in an interview with Policy Watch that the reform model in North Carolina hasn’t worked, either.
He stopped short, however, of calling the ISD a failure.
“You have to shake up things to try to get kids into an environment where they can be more successful,” Bryan said. “Just the pressure of it [ISD) makes the public ask; ‘How are we serving these kids’ and can we do a better job to make them not want to do this program and not want to take one of our schools?”
Bryan contends that Hurricane Florence and the COVID-19 pandemic slowed progress at the school of a little more than 200 students.
Egan said Bryan’s explanation is “bullshit.”
“Actually, what he said proves the point,” Egan explained. “If the school was undone by natural disasters, that shows how fragile the program was. All those other schools over there just kept plugging along somehow.”
Bryan also said that the school has never been allowed to operate as intended.
“I think the problem is that they were not actually able to function as a charter,” Bryan said. “If you can’t make the program do what it needs to do, then it’s not going to work.”
A convoluted and dysfunctional record
Bryan, who lost a reelection bid in 2016, faced criticism two years later after a state disclosure form filed in his role as a member of the UNC System Board of Governors showed he received at least $5,000 in 2017 as a stipend for his work with AAC.
AAC partnered with TeamCFA, a national charter network for the Southside-Ashpole takeover. Team CFA was founded by John Bryan (no relationship to Rob Bryan), a wealthy businessman from Oregon who championed “school choice” causes across the nation. John Bryan has been credited with using his wealth and influence to help push through the law that created the ISD.
At one time, TeamCFA operated as many as 13 charter schools in North Carolina, but many of them began parting ways with the operator in 2019.
The ISD’s relationship with AAC has been rocky. A confidential letter obtained by Policy Watch in the summer of 2020 revealed an ongoing feud between the ISD and AAC, which was then under the leadership of former State Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Democrat from Charlotte.
The unsigned letter recommended that the state board terminate the contract with AAC three years early and cited numerous instances in which the firm allegedly failed to meet deadlines for reports that were contractually mandated. AAC reportedly failed to submit a proposed budget due May 1, 2019 and an annual financial audit that was due Oct. 15, 2019. Nor, says the letter, did AAC submit a compliance report for the district’s Exceptional Children’s Program or make requested corrections to COVID-19 staff work logs.
Even before the letter highlighting the district’s dysfunction appeared, there were signs that the ISD program was not going well.
In 2018, the district’s superintendent, LaTeesa Allen, who was appointed by former Superintendent Mark Johnson, abruptly resigned. DPI didn’t provide an explanation for her departure. Allen’s resignation came on the heels of that of principal Bruce Major, who also left without explanation after one year on the job.
Since the legislation establishing the district was approved, the district has had three superintendents and the school is on its third principal. During original legislative debate regarding the creation of the district, Bryan assured critics that unspecified “guardrails” would be in place the keep the controversial program on track.
They never materialized, and neither did the academic gains promised by Jerry Tillman, the former influential state Senator who chaired the Senate Education Committee at the time the ISD legislation was approved.
“They will make great growth,” Tillman guaranteed. “That’s a fact.”