News: CJ Exclusives

Achievement School District Measure Passes House, Heads To Senate

Plan would put five low-performing schools temporarily under state control, implement 'turnaround' measures at other struggling schools

Former state Rep. Rob Bryan in 2016. (CJ photo by Kari Travis)
Former state Rep. Rob Bryan in 2016. (CJ photo by Kari Travis)

By a 60-49 vote, the state House on Thursday passed a bill that would temporarily remove five of North Carolina’s lowest-performing public schools from their districts, placing them instead under the supervision of an Achievement School District that would allow charter-like flexibility and management.

House Bill 1080, which was hotly debated on the House floor and will be sent to the Senate, also includes provisions for two other school rehabilitation models to help failing schools that don’t qualify for entrance into the ASD. Innovation Zones would allow a school board that has already 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 school board then would be accountable to the State Board of Education, and would be required to meet specific goals and standards each year.

The bill’s other provision is 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. Any hiring choices under this model would require approval from the state board.

Several House members spoke out against the bill, saying that the concept has not delivered results in Tennessee and Louisiana — two states held out as models for the North Carolina project — and that money would be spent better on existing rehabilitation efforts within the Department of Public Instruction, which has assisted 75 out of 581 low-performing schools in North Carolina.

Rep. Bobbie Richardson, D-Franklin, contended that — instead of voting for the ASD pilot program — House members should commit to provide more funding for DPI’s efforts.

“We have a proven … achievement program within our state, with staff and with employees that have proven to be able to succeed in our school districts, and we are not referring to them,” Richardson said. “We don’t have to transport anybody in. [DPI] knows the lay of the land, they know the students, they know the staff, and they have been working closely with the staff.”

Rep. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg, who is the bill’s primary sponsor, contested Richardson’s claim, citing a Duke University study that has shown DPI efforts work in some schools while failing in others.

Bryan also pointed out that DPI’s efforts to help failing schools has been expensive.

“It is costing millions and millions of dollars,” Bryan said.

Bryan also said that his plan to establish an ASD would cost $400,000. He estimated that the combined cost of an ASD, Innovation Zones, and Principal Turnaround Model schools would total $1 million.

“We’re talking about five schools in a possible ASD, and up to 26 schools could be in [Innovation Zones], where the districts who have asked us repeatedly for more flexibility for their lowest-performing schools will actually have [that],” Bryan added. “So I think that’s going to be a great benefit, and a great opportunity for us to work together to accomplish good things for all of our kids.”

Still, some House members remained unconvinced that spending money on a test program is wise for the state, saying that the issue can be solved by ensuring that high-quality teachers and principals are at work in every school.

“This bill reminds me of squinting at a gnat while we swallow a camel,” said Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Haywood. “We don’t need to look to operators to take over our public school boards. We just need the commitment to support our public school boards all across this state, with public policies and funding for a quality teacher in every classroom — and a high quality principal in every school.”

The bill’s supporters disagreed, pointing to a bipartisan belief in the need for quality education and opportunity for at-risk students as a reason to vote in favor of the bill.

Rep. John Bradford, R-Mecklenburg, told House members that H.B. 1080 is a school turnaround bill rather than a takeover effort, reminding them that — as the bill is written — a failing school would spend only eight years in the ASD, after which the Local Education Agency would once again take control.

“It will come back like a boomerang, and it will hopefully come back better than the way it left,” Bradford said. “So this is not a competitive threat in any way. It’s an opportunity to try something new. We teach our children every day to be creative, to be innovative. That’s what makes America great, that’s what makes our school system great. We are trying to apply innovation and creativity to a piece of legislation to practice the very things that we teach in our schools.”