State Politics

Special district for struggling NC public schools gets a hearing

A proposal that would have charter companies take over a few of the state’s lowest-performing schools got its first public airing in a legislative committee Wednesday, where some lawmakers said they were frustrated with the pace of improvement at struggling schools.

Rep. Rob Bryan, a Charlotte Republican, proposes to have charter companies run up to five low-performing schools. The district would be run by a superintendent the State Board of Education hires. Five schools would be selected for transfer to the district by 2019-20.

The goal is to get struggling students performing at or above grade level as quickly as possible, Bryan said. The draft bill has options for districts that don’t want their traditional schools to become charters. The charter companies would operate the schools under five-year contracts; success could add another three years.

Bryan began work on the bill last year, but opposition halted a plan to bring it up for votes.

Bryan, now a lawyer, taught years ago in Los Angeles with Teach for America. His experience there fostered the idea “that we can do more, faster” to improve schools, he said.

The state Department of Public Instruction has a division that works to improve results in low-performing schools and districts.

The division started its work in 2007 with high schools. From 2010 through last year, the division worked with 118 schools – the bottom 5 percent. Most of that time, the department used money from a federal Race to the Top grant. The state spent the grant money on technology, professional development, and school improvement that involved coaching teachers and principals.

All the schools improved, said division director Nancy Barbour, and 83 percent moved out of the bottom 5 percent; 67 percent were no longer in the bottom 10 percent.

With the federal grant ended, the division is now working with 79 of 581 low-performing schools.

“We know it takes time to change and improve schools,” said Barbour, who wished for the resources to serve all 581 schools.

But Rep. Ed Hanes, a Winston-Salem Democrat, said the state effort “sounds like a lot of talk,” and that strikingly few third-graders at some of the high-poverty schools in his district can read at grade level.

“When I hear such things as ‘all this takes time and change,’ the question automatically comes to me, ‘How much time?’ ” Hanes said. The state, under Democratic and Republican leadership, has not effectively confronted the problem, he said.

Most of the 581 schools in the state designated as low-performing have large proportions of poor and minority students.

“We really don’t care a lot about poor people,” Hanes said.

Rep. Hugh Blackwell, a Valdese Republican, said the proposal does not set a high enough standard for the district schools to be deemed successful.

“We’re looking for something that is actually going to get the kids to proficiency in a short period of time,” he said.

Tennessee, Michigan and Louisiana have achievement school districts, and Bryan plans to have speakers who know about those states talk to his House Select Committee on Achievement School Districts.

A recent report by Vanderbilt University researchers found that student performance in Tennessee achievement district schools was no better than at other low-performing schools. District schools that were allowed to operate like charters did better, researchers found.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner