Opinion: Daily Journal

Innovative School District: A promising idea for improving schools 

Critics of the ISD's selection process were happy to let children endure substandard education just to get the optics right

In 2016, the General Assembly passed a bill that created the Achievement School District — later changed to the Innovative School District or ISD — which was tasked to coordinate the transfer of up to five persistently low-performing district schools to a charter school operator. The purpose of the legislation was straightforward — assist district schools that haven’t been able to improve student achievement for the past three or more years. Southside Ashpole Elementary School in Robeson County was the first and only school selected to participate in the ISD’s first year of operation. 

After an extensive review process conducted by an independent evaluator, Achievement for All Children, earned the recommendation of ISD superintendent Dr. Eric Hall and eventually approval by the N.C. State Board of Education. AAC is a North Carolina-based group with ties to the TeamCFA charter school network. TeamCFA operates 13 charter schools in North Carolina and has others slated to open, including a charter school my wife and I cofounded. Only one other charter management company applied for the contract, the Michigan-based Romine Group, Inc., which operates nine charter schools mostly in their home state. 

While the choice of an independently evaluated North Carolina-based operator may seem like common sense, the selection of Achievement for All Children was controversial for some.  

The editorial board of the Charlotte Observer called it an “embarrassment” and “slimy” due to long-standing relationships between Republican legislators and TeamCFA. Yet the editors ignored a key point about the issue. Legislators simply could have handed a grant or contract to TeamCFA in much the same way they award annual grants and contracts to universities, for-profits, nonprofits, and quasi-governmental entities for any number of activities. After all, a direct award would have avoided the fuss of creating and funding the Innovative School District, mandating that the provider receive state approval, and subjecting the charter operator to extraordinary accountability and transparency measures, including a contract that may be terminated early for failing to meet performance standards. As far as “paths of least resistance” go, this was not one of them.  

As far as embarrassments go, by urging the state to reopen the search, Observer editors seem awfully willing to allow children at Southside Ashpole to continue to receive an appalling education for another year or two just to get the “optics” of the search right. 

The truth is that the children that attend Southside Ashpole can’t wait. According to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, only around 14 percent of students are proficient in math. Although the school met reading growth expectations last year, only 19 percent are proficient in the subject. Because so few students read at or above grade level by the end of third grade, a staggering 40 percent of third-graders were retained last year.   

Some of the school’s academic struggles are due to the combination of a student body that has unique challenges and a relatively inexperienced teacher workforce. Last year, 87 percent of the nearly 250 students assigned to the school are classified as economically disadvantaged. Students receive short-term suspensions at rates that far exceed district and state average rates. Additionally, the school has a relatively inexperienced teacher workforce. More than one-third of teachers have three or fewer years of experience, compared to a statewide average of around 22 percent.   

The circumstances surrounding the passage of the legislation should not diminish the importance of the ISD nor the remarkable challenges that Achievement for All Children will encounter when they begin operating Southside Ashpole Elementary. To create sustainable improvement at the school, Achievement for All Children will have the arduous task of creating an environment of high academic and behavioral expectations for students and collective buy-in from teachers. I have little doubt that it will, so long as they ignore naysayers and proponents of an unacceptable status quo. 

Dr. Terry Stoops is vice president of research and director of education studies for the John Locke Foundation.