News: CJ Exclusives

Legislator Likens Failing Schools To ‘Death Traps’ For Minorities

Forsyth County Rep. Hanes says charter-like reforms are positive moves

Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

State Rep. Edward Hanes, D-Forsyth, said a proposed Achievement School District that would operate with charter school flexibility is a step in the right direction to turn around low-performing schools that are “death traps” for the prospects of minority children.

Hanes made his remarks during a meeting Wednesday of the House Select Committee on Achievement School District, and in a subsequent interview with Carolina Journal.

During the meeting, Nancy Barbour, state director of district and school transformation, said under the federal Race to the Top program, the state Department of Public Instruction classified 118 schools as low-performing.

After four years of intense intervention from state staff, 83 percent were no longer in the bottom 5 percent of low-performing schools, and 67 percent were no longer in the bottom 10 percent, she said.

Legislation passed last year redefined low-performing schools, raising the number to 581, Barbour said. The state is working with the 79 lowest-performing schools. Progress will have to take place over time as resources allow, she said.

“Through Democratic governors, and Republican governors, through Democratic Houses and Senates, and Republican Houses and Senates, it sounds to me what it really does come down to is we don’t care a lot about poor people,” Hanes said in response to Barbour’s comments about taking time to reverse the problem.

“Everybody who works in education, and understands [education] policy, and understands what data are, knows that nine times out of 10 that’s a death trap for minority kids in the southeast of the United States of America” to remain zoned into traditional neighborhood schools, Hanes said.

He also questioned how a low-performing school is defined.

Two schools in his Forsyth County district are at 6 percent and 11 percent reading proficiency at the end of third grade.

“Neither one of those schools is on this list,” Hanes said.

He asked Barbour how many schools were turned around into successfully performing schools since 2007.

“You’re asking me to pull numbers together that I don’t know that I can give you 100 percent accurately,” Barbour said, and different metrics that were adopted makes that difficult.

Barbour said the state is looking for statistical improvement, and 100 percent of the schools they worked with showed improvement.

Hanes responded that his constituents would say that “sounds like a lot of talk.”

If 83 percent of the schools improved in the older school turnaround program, “but you’re telling me that my elementary school improved from 6 percent to 12 or 13 percent reading proficiency … that still sounds like criminality to me, Hanes said.

At that level the students are still “not able to read,” or succeed in life, he said.

Rep. Tricia Cotham, D-Mecklenburg, was critical of the existing state turnaround program because state staff working in the failing schools do not evaluate teachers “when they’re a huge part of the issue. … Some people may just not be coached, and we’re talking about children” suffering the consequences.

Barbour said if state staff goes into a school “with a heavy stick” to evaluate and remove people, the situation improves temporarily, but regresses once the intervention team leaves. So coaching for long-term effect, rather than disciplining for immediate gain, is the goal.

That prompted Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, to say that indicates “there’s a failure in leadership” in low-performing schools, but little attempt to remove those not doing their jobs adequately.

After the meeting Hanes told CJ “any and all discussion” about improving low-performing schools is “a move in the right direction.”

“There’s a lot more to this than just the expansion of charter schools or the expansion of nontraditionals outside of the public sector, and we have to address it, and I think this is what this bill is trying to do,” he said of Rep. Rob Bryan’s proposed Achievement School District legislation, a draft of which was circulated at the meeting.

That bill would require a superintendent to be hired by the State Board of Education, and five low-performing schools to be enrolled by the 2019-20 school year.

The school district could accept the selection of its school, close the school, or request a principal turnaround model to help the principal of the failing school succeed.

Schools “would have charter-like flexibility to make decisions on their regulations, policies, and procedures,” Bryan said. An operator would be selected to run the school based on a proven track record, and enter into a five-year contract with the Achievement School District.

Hanes also told CJ that public school choice is a necessary reform component to help economically disadvantaged students who “have perpetually been put in situations that compound the difficulties of learning.”

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools has such an arrangement. Parents can choose a school from within a pod of schools, “and more people, in my estimation, need to probably look at it more strongly and take advantage,” Hanes said.

“People are not satisfied with where things are. They’re not satisfied with the results we’re getting for our kids in some of these schools, and we need to make more dynamic, more drastic steps in improving students’ outcomes,” Bryan said. “I think this bill would go a long way to doing that.”

To those whose refrain is steadfastly that more education spending is the solution, Bryan responded: “We’ve tried that a lot, and it still hasn’t solved the problem. Let’s try some different things.”

He believes “the dynamism” of adding the new plan, and the competition it would generate, would push all schools to improve. He likened it to the Carolina Panthers football team in practice workouts. While they scrimmage against one another, honing their skills and trying to showcase their talents, they’re all on the same team, and the intrasquad competition helps all players to improve under a common goal.

Another meeting on the bill will be held in February, and a vote is expected in March.

Dan Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.