Concern grows about lab schools at UNC

A legislative mandate for experimental public schools at UNC is moving forward, but not without anxiety about the time line and questions about how the new schools would operate.

This week, about 70 university and public school officials met in Chapel Hill to try to hammer out a plan for the schools. The state budget required eight UNC campuses to establish so-called lab schools – essentially charter schools that would serve kindergarten through 8th grade students.

The lab schools would have to be located in districts that have at least one-quarter of their schools classified as low-performing, to “expand student opportunities for educational success through high-quality instructional programming and innovative instruction and research by using the resources available at the constituent institution,” according to the budget language.

The directive from the Senate was included in the final budget compromise, but was not sought by UNC. Leaders in the UNC system’s Faculty Assembly called the legislation an unfunded mandate, an intrusion into curriculum and “an unprecedented and unjustified overreach into the management of UNC institutions.”

There are also practical concerns. Last week several members of the UNC Board of Governors said the time line was too aggressive. The law requires that four be established for the 2017-18 school year and four more in 2018-19.

“To get a school up and running in eight months is mind boggling,” said Anna Spangler Nelson, who chairs the UNC board’s committee on education planning, policies and programs.

Others have raised questions about the governance of the schools. University boards of trustees would oversee the schools and hire teachers and employees, who would become university employees. Trustees would also appoint an advisory board made up of faculty, the education dean, parents, a community member and a student. The legislation requires university trustees to establish school calendars, the standard course of study and other policies, yet most members don’t have experience in running public schools. Trustee boards only meet four to six times a year.

Gabriel Lugo, a professor at UNC Wilmington and head of the UNC Faculty Assembly, said the legislation puts boards of trustees in the position of operating as school boards, something they aren’t prepared to do. “I think we should push back really hard and create something that is constructive,” he said.

Such schools would operate outside of the local school district, but the districts would pay out money to support the students and would have to provide meals and transportation. Frank Gilliam, chancellor of UNC Greensboro, said he was a fan of lab schools, explaining that his children had attended them in another state. But he cautioned that there’s been no time for collaboration with school districts.

“School districts see this as a hostile takeover,” Gilliam said. “They’re asked to give up a lot, and there’s nothing in it for them.”

Others find a lot to like in lab schools, which could test new techniques in the classroom. Thom Goolsby, a UNC board member and former legislator, called the idea bold and thoughtful.

“It’s a very good effort of our General Assembly to deal with the crisis of low-performing schools,” Goolsby said. “I think it’s wonderful.”

There are more than 100 laboratory schools associated with colleges and universities, according to the International Association of Laboratory Schools. Faculty are sometimes master teachers and researchers at the forefront of educational reform, and the schools train budding teachers while educating students.

At least one supportive legislator has raised concerns. Rep. Craig Horn, a Weddington Republican, wrote to UNC President Margaret Spellings on Sept. 20, asking a slew of questions about whether the university was prepared to take on the lab schools and whether university boards were equipped for the fiduciary, operational and policy-making responsibilities.

“This task will require time in order to bring students and parents together to develop a focus for each school as well as allow time to digest the concept of a lab school, why it is a good option for their children and buy into the possibilities,” Horn wrote.

Spellings wrote back, suggesting a slower launch of the schools and changes to their governance structure. She said it would be better to start with two schools, or four at most, the first year, with a single grade level. She also recommended a single separate governing board for all lab schools or for the Board of Governors to oversee the schools, rather than individual campus boards. The location for the eight schools will be decided by Nov. 1 and reported to the legislature, she wrote.

The time frame the legislature has established, she wrote, is “quite challenging for UNC to meet with our existing resources.” For example, she added, the university will likely have to hire a dedicated team of employees just to evaluate and serve the needs of disabled students.

The legislature allocated $1 million for planning, and the university has hired former Wilson County School Superintendent Sean Bulson to help with the project. But Spellings said there would be significant costs with starting up new schools before the first pupils enroll, bringing funding with them.

In an interview, Spellings said she’s committed to the schools, but wants to make sure they succeed. The process is complicated, she said. “The lab schools need thoughtful implementation.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill