Education

Company tied to rich donor wants to take over low-performing NC school

A defiant community vows to fight state takeover of Durham elementary school

A defiant crowd of parents, teachers and elected leaders gathered at Glenn Elementary School on Tuesday to stand against a state takeover of the school.
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A defiant crowd of parents, teachers and elected leaders gathered at Glenn Elementary School on Tuesday to stand against a state takeover of the school.

Two companies, including one tied to a wealthy libertarian donor who helped pass a state law allowing takeover of low-performing North Carolina schools, are trying to win state approval to run one of those schools.

Achievement For All Children and the Romine Group have applied to manage Southside Ashpole Elementary School in Robeson County, which has been chosen for the new Innovative School District. Achievement For All Children is heavily connected to Oregon resident John Bryan, a generous contributor to political campaigns and school-choice causes in North Carolina.

Eric Hall, superintendent of the Innovative School District, told state Board of Education members Wednesday that he’s contracted with SchoolWorks, an education consulting group, to review and evaluate both applications. A recommendation could be made to the state board in January on which company to accept.

The Innovative School District was created by Republican state lawmakers to take up to five low-performing elementary schools away from local school district control and to turn them over to a group, either for-profit or nonprofit, to run. Supporters say it’s a way to help raise student achievement while critics say the model, which has been used in other states, is a way to privatize education.

Hall said he was excited to work with a school-management group “to align their values and our values to be one and the same with the local community.”

Nine groups had submitted letters of intent in October when state education leaders were considering taking over as many as two schools for the 2018-19 school year, including Glenn Elementary School in Durham. Hall eventually recommended only Southside Ashpole for the program’s first year, but state lawmakers have given until the 2020-21 school year for five schools to be picked for the program.

The Robeson County school board has until February to decide whether to accept the transfer or to close the school at the end of the school year.

“The Innovation School District is an unproven and unaccountable takeover scheme that does nothing to improve student achievement,” Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, said in a statement. “Having for-profit companies take over public schools will do nothing but rip our communities apart.

“Parents, educators, and communities have been making it loud and clear that they do not want this.”

Only Achievement For All Children and the Romine Group met Friday’s deadline to submit applications. Go to http://www.ncpublicschools.org/ncisd/intent/ to view each group’s application.

Hall said it’s understandable that there were only two applicants because the program is new. But Kris Nordstrom, education finance and policy consultant for the liberal N.C. Justice Center’s Education and Law Project, said the lack of applications shows groups don’t think the new district will work.

The Michigan-based for-profit Romine Group runs several charter schools in Michigan and one in North Carolina: Capitol Encore Academy in Fayetteville.

The nonprofit Achievement For All Children is seeking state permission to manage Aristotle Preparatory Academy, a low-performing charter school in Charlotte, as well as the Robeson County school.

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.

“Achievement For All Children believes every child deserves the opportunity at a great education,” Helton, the chief executive officer for the company, said in a statement. “North Carolina has many, many schools who are providing that opportunity.

“Unfortunately, some schools and communities have struggled to offer that chance. AAC has a vision to help students, schools, and communities improve their quality of life through educational opportunities.”

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 North Carolina law allowing for takeover of low-performing schools.

John Bryan’s letter notes that TeamCFA and Achievement For All Children “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.”

John Bryan has contributed about $600,000 to legislative candidates in North Carolina, most of them Republicans, 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.

Nordstrom said the application from a group connected to Bryan confirms critics’ fears that the program is a way to divert public money to private groups.

“It’s disappointing that the people who paid for the bill are able to profit from the bill,” he said.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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