Community gathers to oppose potential privatization of two Durham County schools
A company tied to a wealthy libertarian donor who helped pass a state law allowing takeover of low-performing North Carolina schools is trying to win approval to operate those schools.
Achievement For All Children was among the groups that applied for state approval to run struggling schools that will be chosen for the Innovative School District. Achievement For All Children is heavily connected to Oregon resident John Bryan, who is a generous contributor to political campaigns and school-choice causes in North Carolina.
The company was formed in February and registered by Tony Helton, the chief executive officer of TeamCFA, a charter network that Bryan founded. The board of directors for Achievement for All Children includes former Rep. Rob Bryan, a Republican from Mecklenburg County who introduced the bill creating the new district, and Darrell Allison, who heads the pro-school choice group Parents For Educational Freedom in North Carolina.
John Bryan contributed about $17,000 to Rob Bryan’s campaigns for the state legislature from 2013 to 2016.
In a letter posted to the network’s website in April, John Bryan said his commitment of “significant economic resources” – contributions to politicians and nonprofit “social welfare” groups, and the engagement of investment advisers and others – helped win legislative approval of the controversial North Carolina law that will have charter school operators and education management organizations take over up to five low-performing public schools.
John Bryan’s April letter notes that TeamCFA and Achievement For All Children (AAC) “have opted to use a 501(c)3 organization as the vehicle to attract funds necessary to expand their network of schools through this law.” Achievement For All Children describes itself as AAC on its website.
A spokeswoman for TeamCFA said she would provide comment when she could do so. Helton, who is chief executive officer of Achievement For All Children, did not immediately return a request for comment. Helton had cited an increased workload at TeamCFA for resigning this week from the state Charter Schools Advisory Board.
Rob Bryan did not immediately return a request for comment.
Opponents of the new state school district were critical of a group connected to the wealthy political donor from Oregon running another school in the state. TeamCFA already has 13 charter schools in North Carolina.
“One wealthy Oregonian’s persistent lobbying resulting in the takeover of elementary schools in distressed North Carolina communities is disturbing enough, but to find out his organization may directly benefit makes the whole scheme even more questionable,” said Andrea Verykoukis, spokeswoman for Public Schools First NC.
Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, said it was “disappointing but not surprising” that an organization backed by John Bryan wants to take over a public school.
Eric Hall, superintendent of the Innovative School District, could announce as soon as Friday which two schools he will recommend be taken over for the 2018-19 school year. A preliminary list includes four schools, including Glenn Elementary School in Durham, where school and community leaders have been fighting state takeover.
Jewell called the Innovative School District “a failed project” with no proven results in other states that have tried it.
“This is something we never should have been a part of in North Carolina,” Jewell said.
A foundation John Bryan supports helps schools with startup costs and provides instructional support and money for technology. TeamCFA is a nonprofit network that provides $300,000 in forgivable loans to new schools that agree to its principles. Teachers in TeamCFA schools must be trained in a curriculum called Core Knowledge. Some TeamCFA schools have a classical education theme, but it is not required.
Three of the 13 TeamCFA schools in North Carolina opened this year. Student performance was mixed at the remaining schools. Five schools received Bs in the latest round of state grades, while four received Cs and one received a D.
John Bryan, 84, was vice president of operations at Georgia Gulf until his retirement in 1989. An August 2002 edition of Atlanta Business Chronicle attributed Bryan’s wealth to company stock.
In his April letter, John Bryan was enthusiastic about the law passed last year that created what is now known as the Innovative School District. He envisioned that those traditional public schools chosen for the district could be converted permanently to charters if student performance improves.
“I am excited about the new North Carolina law which allows knowledgeable and experienced entities the possibility of taking over failing traditional public schools,” he wrote. “By raising a school’s ‘F’ rating to a ‘C’ rating within two years, such entities could gain permanent ownership and control of that school. If our organizations can show how this works for the good of a community, this approach could expand to other states, hopefully across the country!! How exciting that would be! And our team could be of help to others who want to travel the same road.”
Under the law passed last year, charter management companies and/or education management organizations are supposed to run the schools for five to eight years. The State Board of Education is scheduled to vote by Dec. 15 on at least two schools to be taken over in the 2018-19 school year. School boards will have until Feb. 1 to either transfer their schools to the program or close them.
In addition to Achievement For All Children, the other groups identified by the state Tuesday as having submitted letters of intent were The Romine Group, Phalen Leadership Academies, Achieve Educational Partners LLC, Learning Sciences International LLC, Global Education Resources, OmniVest LLC, and PlusUltre LLC, AMIKids Inc. and CIS of Robeson County.
After consulting with their legal department, the applicants will be given 24 hours’ notice before their unredacted letters are released, according to Drew Elliot, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Instruction.
In Tennessee, students in the Achievement School District that formed using the same model have not done better academically than students in comparable low-performing schools that weren’t taken over.
John Bryan has contributed about $600,000 to legislative candidates in North Carolina, most of them Republican, and GOP political committees from 2011 to 2016. Included is a $100,000 contribution to a group supporting GOP candidates for the state Supreme Court. He contributed $50,000 to a political action committee called Truth & Prosperity, set up to support Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. Forest is a member of the State Board of Education, which will help select which companies are chosen.
Forest said in an interview earlier this year that he did not know why Bryan contributed to the PAC.