State Politics

Proposed state takeover of 5 low-performing schools passes NC House

Up to five low-performing schools would be turned over to charter operators under a controversial proposal the state House approved Thursday after an extended debate over how to help struggling students.

The bill’s supporters said the state needs to try something new to improve chances for students at schools where academic performance suffers year after year. Opponents said the state should instead spend enough on proven strategies such as early childhood education.

House Bill 1080, which sponsor Republican Rep. Rob Bryan of Charlotte has been working on for more than a year, passed 60-49 and now goes to the state Senate for consideration. Three Democrats voted for the bill, while 11 Republicans and an unaffiliated lawmaker voted against it.

Under the bill, up to five schools selected by a superintendent the State Board of Education hires would become part of an Achievement School District. Charter school operators would run the schools under five-year contracts with optional three-year extensions.

The N.C. Association of Educators is fighting the bill, while Americans for Prosperity-North Carolina, a group tied to the conservative industrialist Koch brothers, supports it. A group called the Education Freedom Alliance that is working for the bill’s passage ran a full-page ad in the News & Observer this week asking readers to call legislators about it.

Elementary schools in the bottom 5 percent of statewide performance would be eligible for selection. After they were chosen, the schools’ home districts would have the option of putting them in the achievement district, closing the schools, or replacing their principals with school leaders who have experience improving low-performing schools.

Districts transferring schools to the new achievement district could ask to set up iZones, innovation zones, giving the districts the flexibility to run three of their schools like charter schools. For example, they would be able to extend the school day or the academic year, and depart from the state teacher salary schedule.

Sen. Jerry Tillman, an Archdale Republican and a leader of that chamber’s education committee, said Senate Republicans will take “a long, hard look” at the bill.

The bill has a lot of moving parts, Tillman said, and there may not be enough time to pass it in the ongoing short session of the legislature.

A few states have charter school districts like the district Bryan wants to set up. Both supporters and opponents mentioned those other states in the debate.

A special House committee Bryan led last winter looked in depth at the Achievement School District in Tennessee. A study out of Vanderbilt University found that over three years, the students in those schools weren’t doing any better than comparable schools and that iZone schools were more effective. Joshua Glazier of George Washington University said political backlash created instability for the Tennessee schools, distracting them from their main mission. Operating neighborhood schools rather than schools of choice was a new experience for charter operators.

Bryan said his bill contains safeguards and a gradual roll-out. Two schools would join the district by 2018-19 and the other three by 2019-20, he said. He estimated the total cost at about $1 million.

“Guardrails” in the bill would ensure the selection of quality operators, he said.

“This is not an effort to disrupt or offend districts,” Bryan said. “We are recognizing the need to help those schools that need us the most.”

Opponents, noting the spotty record of such schools in other states, said an Achievement School District was a bad idea.

“It’s a risky experiment, a bad business model,” said Rep. Ken Goodman, a Rockingham Democrat. It would be wiser to give the local districts the money to fix the schools and hold them accountable for doing it, he said.

Rep. Verla Insko, said the state isn’t doing enough to make sure children most in need of quality early education get it.

“We know the answers,” said Insko, a Chapel Hill Democrat. “We just fail to do it.”

But Rep. Cecil Brockman, a prominent Democratic supporter of the special districts, said the state needs to look at new ways to improve chronically low-performing schools. More than two-thirds of African-American students in traditional public schools are failing, he said.

“Please reject the status quo,” said Brockman, who represents a Guilford County district. “We’ve been doing it for years, and these are the numbers.”

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner