News: CJ Exclusives

Alamance May Try Letting Traditional Schools Act Like Charters

Five-year-old 'restart' provision for failing schools has never been tried

RALEIGH — The State Board of Education will consider again in February a proposal enabling failing traditional public schools to apply for an exemption easing some state regulations so they can operate more like charter schools.

The Policy for the Reform of Continually Low-Performing Schools, last heard Dec. 3 by the SBOE, resulted from a discussion between state Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson and Alamance-Burlington School Superintendent Bill Harrison regarding whether two failing schools in the Alamance district, Eastlawn Elementary and Haw River Elementary, might take advantage of the exemption established in 2010 under Senate Bill 704.

The legislation outlines four options for rehabilitating a failing public school. One option allows charter school exemptions as part of a “restart model.”

Harrison, the former SBOE chairman, said that — though his district is looking at all options, and no decisions for school rehabilitation have been made — the restart program is a real consideration.

“[Our system] is looking for ways to help schools where we recognize that students need more time to master grade-level content,” Harrison said. “We are looking for how we can provide that, given the current inflexibility of the school calendar law.”

If the waivers for the Alamance schools are approved, they would be the first in the state to take advantage of the charter exemptions.

“The legislation [in question] required that the State Board of Education adopt policies to facilitate any school that would like to use that model,” Atkinson said. “So when Alamance-Burlington asked about the process, we recognized that we didn’t have State Board of Education policies in place. And so, consequently, that’s why we have brought to the State Board of Education a policy proposal.”

Atkinson said the Department of Public Instruction is creating an application public schools must submit to the state board before charter school waivers could be granted. The application will be completed in January and presented to the board alongside the policy text in February.

Though the policy allows public schools to act like charters, there remains a clear difference between traditional charters and restart schools, Atkinson said.

“Charter schools have boards independent from a local board of education,” Atkinson said. “And with this restart model, the local board of education maintains accountability and responsibility [of the restart school]. I think that’s the major difference.”

Some details of the statute remain unclear for schools hoping to enter a restart program, Atkinson said.

“There would … be some flexibility with funding for restart schools,” Atkinson said. “And this is one example of us walking down a road that we have not walked before. Our traditional charter schools receive the same amount of funding from [the] state [level], and even though they receive the same amount of funding [that] a regular school does, they have more flexibility in spending.”

One example is career and technical education funding, which must be spent by traditional schools based on rules dictated by the state. Charter schools, on the other hand, are allowed to spend the money as they see fit. It’s this type of charter flexibility that now also may apply to restart schools, Atkinson said.

Failing public schools are likely to find the restart program more appealing than becoming independent charter schools, mostly due to efficiency, said Gregg Sinders, senior education policy analyst for Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, R-Wake.

“I think from a district perspective, they prefer the flexibility that comes with not having to go through the approval process of [establishing] a nonprofit board, and they would prefer to maintain control,” Sinders said.

Independent charter school operators in North Carolina don’t see the restart program as competition, said Lee Teague, spokesman for the North Carolina Public Charter Schools Association. Teague also wondered why these developments took so long.

“This law’s been on the books for five years,” Teague said. “Why is it now that one school [district] is looking to do a test case? [But] our message is … if this will help you improve your schools, more power to you.”

Such improvement is unlikely for “continually low-performing schools” that qualify for the restart program, since those schools will remain under the control of the school board that allowed them to fail in the first place, said Baker Mitchell, founder and president of Roger Bacon Academy, which operates several charter schools in southeastern North Carolina.

“In general, well-trained teachers using proven curricula with help from knowledgeable coaches are the agents for positive change,” Mitchell said. “No policy or ‘model’ ever educated a child. A low-performing traditional district school restarting as a quasi-charter school will just result in a low-performing quasi-charter school so long as the same local board remains in control. Changing the name over the door will not improve the students’ education.”

“Until control at the top by the local districts breeding these low-performing schools is changed, no substantive improvement will occur for the children trapped in these failed schools,” Mitchell continued.

The restart program advances school choice for North Carolinians, however, said Sinders, who hopes other low-performing schools will follow the Alamance district’s lead and consider the opportunity.

“We have to make sure that there are avenues where charters and traditional public schools can collaborate and share ideas and services,” Sinders said. “I think this can help do it, but I still think we have a long way to go to make sure that collaboration is happening. We don’t want to create an ‘us versus them’ environment. We want to create a collaborative environment. And that’s not something you should have to legislate.”

Kari Travis (@karilynntravis) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.