News: CJ Exclusives

Achievement School District Bill Passes Senate

School turnaround measure returns to House, where it could be adopted as early as Wednesday

A measure to rehabilitate five of North Carolina’s failing public schools passed the state Senate on Tuesday by a vote of 35-14 after facing opposition from lawmakers who said the bill would allow charter school companies to exploit taxpayer money while perpetuating low performance among struggling students.

House Bill 1080, “Achievement School District,” was introduced earlier this year by Rep. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg. The plan is modeled after Tennessee and Louisiana programs that removed failing public schools from state control, placing them instead under charter-like management.

Under the proposal, the State Board of Education would place five low-performing public schools (selected from those statewide ranking in the bottom 5 percent of performance measures) into the ASD. There, a superintendent would recommend an independent entity, such as a charter school operator, to run each achievement school.

Bryan’s legislation included two additional options for school rehabilitation. Innovation Zones would allow a school board that has entered one of its schools into the ASD to create a modified schedule with extra flexibility for up to three additional low-performing schools in its district.

The House-passed version of H.B. 1080 also included a Principal Turnaround Model, which would allow a local school board to fire a school’s principal and instead hire a “turnaround” principal with a proven record of success.

The measure approved by the Senate differs from the version passed by the House earlier this month, keeping Innovation Zones, but tossing out the Principal Turnaround Model. That provision was not popular with the Senate’s Republican majority, said Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, who presented the the bill before the Senate.

“I hope you’ll agree with me that we can no longer stand by while students attend our institutions with low-performing scores and unacceptable growth,’ Barefoot said. “These schools will be chosen out of the bottom 5 percent of low-performing schools in North Carolina. A superintendent will be chosen to oversee the schools, and will oversee the hiring of new management, and will also allow for the creation of Innovation Zones for the school districts that qualify into the Achievement School District.”

Senate members debated the bill for nearly an hour on Monday, with Democratic opponents questioning the necessity of an ASD program, stating that existing “restart models” — provisions that offer local school boards some charter-like flexibility to improve failing schools — are a better answer to the problem.

“I have heard from our school systems that they disapprove of outside entities — and I disapprove of outside entities, private entities — coming in and using state funds to work with our children, most of whom are low income and minority children,” said Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford.

“One of the things that concerns me about this bill is the coercive nature of it,” said Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Halifax. “This process as described is very disruptive to a community.”

Bryant, who joined several other Democrats in proposing amendments that would exempt Guilford County, Mecklenburg County, Wake County, and Rocky Mount schools from the ASD program — none of which were adopted — also stated that the legislation was built around a “mistaken philosophy.”

Bryant suggested that any private operators of achievement schools would be “lining their pockets” with taxpayer money.

Barefoot answered a series of challenges from Democrats, pointing to continued failure in some public schools as evidence that the state must do something to reboot the system. He also noted that any independent operator of an achievement school would receive no more taxpayer funding than K-12 public schools now receive.

And he addressed concerns about private operators for ASD schools, proposing an amendment to stipulate that the ASD superintendent must have a sound track record in improving failing schools, and that any private operator selected to run an ASD must present a credible and specific plan for improving the school’s operations. That amendment was later adopted as part of the Senate’s version of the bill.

“It’s not inevitable that it’s some type of out-of-state private corporation,” Barefoot said of ASD operators. “In fact … these operators have to have proven that they can do what it is that — up until this point — the public school system can’t.”

“I will also say that roughly 90 percent of the Local Education Authorities in this state will not be affected by this legislation, because … many do not have low-performing schools,” Barefoot continued. “This bill specifically addresses the bottom 5 percent of low-performing schools in North Carolina.”

Other challenges to the legislation involved concerns that Tennessee’s ASD program has seen several failures, including a downturn in student performance. Supporters of H.B. 1080 defended the legislation against those complaints, calling it more practical than the legislation passed in Tennessee.

You can’t go too big like [Tennessee] did,” said Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Moore. “There were many factors at play there so that structurally it couldn’t succeed. We’re going on a very small scale with a model that can succeed. Other school systems can try to do this on their own. The problem is, you never close a public school. You never say ‘you’ve failed long enough, and you’re not going to fail anymore.’ We don’t do that.”

H.B. 1080 will be sent back to the House. If that body concurs with the Senate’s version of the bill, it immediately would go to Gov. Pat McCrory for his signature.