News: CJ Exclusives

Bill revamping Innovative School District gets legislative stamp of approval

State Sen. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg (CJ file photo)
State Sen. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg (CJ file photo)

The General Assembly has approved a plan to reform the Innovative School District.

On Tuesday, Oct. 29, the Senate and the House took up the conference report for Senate Bill 522. The bill makes several changes to the ISD program and delays the number of schools that must be added to the ISD. Despite objections from Democratic lawmakers, S.B. 522 passed 33-16 in the Senate and 64-48 in the House. 

While Republicans want to fix the ISD program, Democratic lawmakers want it repealed. 

Republican lawmakers argued it was necessary to pass the bill to prevent more schools from being added without first reforming the program. Without S.B. 522, the State Board of Education would be forced to select four schools for the ISD at next week’s meeting. 

“This is a time-sensitive bill,” Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, R-Wilkes, said.

Democratic lawmakers largely opposed the bill, arguing instead for restoring funding to the Department of Public Instruction for school turnaround efforts that were cut last year. 

Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, said the ISD program remains all stick and no carrot. He said the takeover of Southside Ashpole Elementary — the only ISD school — has done more harm than good. 

The bill rewards failure, Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, said. He pointed to the lack of results at Southside Ashpole as a reason to end the program. Instead, the state should send more money to the Department of Public Instruction for efforts to turn schools around.

But Sen. Don Davis, D-Greene, said the bill added accountability to the ISD program. Davis said he’s opposed the ISD from its inception and he would vote to repeal it if given the chance. Opponents don’t have the votes to do that, he said, so he voted to improve the program.

Recently appointed Sen. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg, said while results are so far flat for Southside Ashpole, improvements are being seen at other low performing schools. 

“Part of the ISD program is to put pressure on the rest of the qualifying schools to improve student performance,” Bryan said. 

Bryan was a primary sponsor of the legislation creating the program when he served in the state House.

The ISD — originally called the Achievement School District — became law in 2016. The program places the lowest-performing schools in the state under management of charter or education organizations for five years. The goal is to improve school performance through awarding greater flexibility not typically afforded traditional public schools.

Only one school, Southside Ashpole in Robeson County, has been transferred to the ISD. Carver Heights in Wayne County was poised to join the program in 2018, but significant local pushback and criticism over the selection process halted the transfer. Instead, the General Assembly passed legislation allowing Carver Heights to become a Restart School and stay under local control instead of joining the ISD. 

Now some lawmakers hope to reform the program, providing more clarity to the selection process and avoiding a repeat of last year’s drama.

The bill redefines the qualifications for ISD schools. To qualify, a school would have to receive Title I funds (in other words, enroll so many low-income students it gets federal support) and be in the lowest performing 5% of school performance grades statewide. The lowest-scoring qualifying school would be transferred to the ISD. 

S.B. 522 also makes changes to the selection process. Once a school is placed on the qualifying list, it must show no improvements for one year before the school is moved to the watch list. The process is repeated again for the warning list. Finally, if a school still hasn’t made any progress after a year on the warning list and it’s one of the lowest five qualifying schools on the list, then the SBE must move it to the ISD.