Politics & Government

NC could require some low-performing public schools to be turned over to private operators

Some low-performing, high-poverty North Carolina public schools could be required to be taken over by the state and turned over to a third party to run, such as a charter school operator.

The N.C. House voted 62-51 on Friday to pass a bill changing how schools are selected for the Innovative School District, a controversial program allowing state takeover of low-performing schools. The bill would require the lowest performing school in the state to be added to the program annually.

“We’re doing everything we can to help these kids that are trapped in these schools that need our help,” said Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincoln County Republican.

But critics said the bill is another attempt to privatize public education.

“It’s beginning to privatize the schools,” said Rep. Kandie Smith, a Pitt County Democrat. “You’re making money off those who are poor and those who already have those challenges. That’s what happening.”

House Bill 798 now goes to the Senate.

The Innovative School District was created by Republican state lawmakers in 2016 to take up to five low-performing elementary schools away from local school district control and turn them over to an outside group to run. Supporters say it’s a way to help raise student achievement. But critics say the model hasn’t worked well in other states.

Southside Ashpole Elementary in Robeson County became the first school in the program this school year. The school is now managed by a company that has ties to a wealthy political donor who helped pass the law creating the program.

Carver Heights Elementary School in Goldsboro was picked to join the program this fall, but state lawmakers passed legislation in December allowing Wayne County Public Schools to retain control of the school.

Currently, the leaders of the Innovative School District identify a group of schools based on their low scores and then recommend one or more schools to be added to the State Board of Education. But the past two years have seen strong community opposition among the schools picked.

The bill would expand the program beyond elementary schools to include any school that’s among the lowest-performing 5 percent of Title I schools. Title I is a federal program that helps schools with large numbers of economically disadvantaged students.

For the next four years, the bill would require the state board to select the school with the lowest school performance score.

For the years after that, the bill creates a system that would give schools three years to improve their performance before being selected. The state would create a three-tier system: a qualifying list, a watch list and a warning list.

If a low-performing school on the warning list was among the five lowest performing schools it would be added to the program for the 2023-24 school year.

The bill makes other changes, including allowing the state board to pick a consultant instead of an operator to run schools. If a consultant is selected, the district where the school is located would retain control.

Rep. Charles Graham, a Robeson County Democrat, recalled the fear he said the community was put under when Southside Ashpole was selected.

”I think it’s a serious effort to privatize public education, minority schools and take over for financial benefit and profit,” Graham said.

Rep. Cecil Brockman, a Guilford County Democrat and one of the primary sponsors of the bill, said he understands why some legislators think the wording in the legislation is too tough. But he said that could be enough to motivate school districts to do more to help their low-performing schools.

“It incentivizes our school systems to do something about our low-performing schools,” Brockman said.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.