RALEIGH — State Rep. Rob Bryan plans to introduce legislation creating a pilot program transforming as many as five perpetually failing elementary schools into charter-like entities under a new Achievement School District with its own superintendent.
Bryan, a Mecklenburg County Republican, said he may introduce the bill in the Education Policy K-12 Committee this week, substituting his proposal in the body of a bill already passed by the Senate.
The proposal is modeled along the lines of programs Louisiana and Tennessee have used to turn around failing schools, Bryan said. His idea has generated opposition from defenders of traditional public schools, but Bryan said where similar programs have been implemented, schools and students performance “have improved. Sometimes the gains are really solid.”
If enacted, the five-year program could launch in the 2016-17 year. It would focus on “schools that are highly underperforming, but in addition are not showing signs of [academic] growth,” Bryan said. The initial schools would be selected from the 25 worst-performing elementary schools in the state.
“The scores are just such that you would think to yourself, ‘Gosh, I would never put my children there,’” Bryan said.
He said it’s fine to continue discussing “the root causes” of the poor performance. “But the immediate question for all those kids is, Is this school getting the job done?” Bryan asked “And if not, are there immediate things we can do” to improve education for those children?
“Many of the schools that would be eligible for services have floundered for decades. It makes sense to have a competent agency whose sole purpose is to focus on raising student achievement in those long-suffering schools,” said Terry Stoops, director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation.
The Achievement School District would not operate as an independent entity, he said. The North Carolina State Board of Education would have direct oversight of the district and hold ASD administrators accountable for results.
Stoops said some detractors of the plan believe spending more money would turn around the failing schools. But funding is seldom the problem or the solution, he said.
“Poor working conditions, low morale, and counterproductive management and instructional practices are often the source of their troubles,” Stoops said. “The Achievement School District would be in a unique position to address these difficulties, and ensure that the schools under their watch build and maintain a culture of academic success.”
“The department wants to do everything we can to support any program that targets those schools,” said Rebecca Garland, deputy state superintendent of the state Department of Public Instruction.
“If this is one more tool, one more initiative in the state that will help low-performing schools, then we will do whatever we can to be supportive. We’ll wait and see whatever comes out,” Garland said.
She said DPI has its own turnaround program for school and district transformation designed to raise student performance among the bottom 5 percent of all elementary, middle, and high schools.
Bryan views his measure as an extension of the General Assembly’s recent parental empowerment programs, such as opportunity scholarships, increasing the number of charter schools, and other school choice options.
Under his proposal, the Achievement School District superintendent, selected by a task force headed by the lieutenant governor, would choose the schools to be transferred into the program after conferring with local officials and holding a public hearing. Recommendations would be made to the State Board of Education by Nov. 15. The board would choose the schools by Jan. 15.
No more than one school could be selected from a school district. Up to five schools may be transferred at the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, but at least two must be transferred by the 2017-2018 school year. All five must be transferred no later than the 2018-2019 school year.
School districts would have to transfer any failing school into the achievement district or shut it down at the end of the school year.
The charter operators of the achievement schools would receive five-year contracts, after meeting requirements to hold public meetings and other community, school, and local school board outreach efforts. School attendance zones would remain the same as they were with the local district.
If an operator failed to meet performance goals after three years, the contract could be terminated and the SBOE would select another operator. The school could be closed at the end of the five-year contract if it did not meet performance goals.
After five years, schools demonstrating academic growth that’s faster than other low-performing schools could receive a three-year contract extension from the state. Alternatively, the state could give a three-year contract for the school to another charter operator, close the school, or transfer it back to the local school district.
Achievement school operators could fund operations through per-pupil allocation transfers from the local school district, much like charter schools receive their money. Or they could enter into a memorandum of understanding with the local school board to continue services and funding in the same way they were done the previous school year. The achievement schools also could seek federal, state, and other funds.
The local school district would remain responsible for facility and capital expenses and providing transportation. The achievement school also could negotiate a different plan with the school district for those items.
The charter school operator would select a principal, who could employ current teachers and other staff members at the achievement school. They would remain eligible for state health and retirement plans. Employees not kept by the charter school would be assigned to other jobs by the local school district.
Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.