News: Quick Takes

Innovative School District reforms become law without governor’s signature 

Reforms to the Innovative School District are here to stay after Gov. Roy Cooper allowed Senate Bill 522 to become law without his signature. 

S.B. 522 made several changes to the Innovative School District, a school turnaround program which gives an outside group authority for five years over low-performing schools to boost their performance. So far only one school, Southside Ashpole Elementary in Robeson County, has joined the ISD. 

Significant local pushback derailed attempts to add a second school, Carver Heights Elementary in Wayne County. The backlash prompted lawmakers and education officials to reconsider how the ISD selection process worked. The result was S.B. 522.

In a letter to Eric Davis, the chairman of the State Board of Education, Cooper laid out his opposition to the ISD. 

“Turning over control of a public school to a private charter school operator is both bad policy and ineffective, and I am fundamentally opposed to the ISD concept,” Cooper said in the letter.

The governor said the state education board should prioritize support for low-performing schools in its short session budget request.

Despite opposing the concept, Cooper said the bill makes some improvements to the ISD. The governor highlighted how S.B. 522 provides a way for low-performing schools to improve before “being subject to take over.”

Terry Stoops, the vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said the state education board and the Department of Public Instruction have prioritized support for struggling schools for years.

“Lawmakers supported school takeover legislation because the state generally has been unsuccessful in raising student achievement in chronically low-performing schools,” Stoops said. 

S.B. 522 redefines the qualifications for ISD schools. To qualify, a school would have to qualify for the federal Title I program (which is based on enrolling a large percentage of low-income students) and be in the lowest performing 5% of school performance grades statewide. The qualifying school with the lowest scores would transfer to the ISD. 

The bill also changes the selection process. If a school is placed on the qualifying list, it must show no improvements for one year before moving 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.

Republican lawmakers said the reforms were necessary to improve the program, but Democratic lawmakers wanted the ISD repealed. The House and Senate passed S.B. 522 largely along party lines. 

The reforms come just as a list of qualifying schools for the ISD was unveiled at the Nov. 7 SBE meeting. Sixty-nine low-performing schools made the cut, but only those who remain on the list for four consecutive years are primed to transfer to the ISD. 

Had S.B. 522 not become law, the State Board of Education would have picked four schools to join the ISD for the 2020-21 school year to comply with statute.