Charter schools offer opportunities to experiment with innovative policies and find what works best to improve academic performance, says one education scholar, and model programs allow educators to do just that.

By providing charter-like flexibility, the restart school model, for example, is one of four options for continuously low-performing North Carolina public schools to improve academic performance.

The school reform model has been available to recurring low-performing schools since 2016, but only 121 schools have applied and been approved to implement a school reform model, said Nancy Barbour, director of educator support services at the Department of Public Instruction. Out of the 121 schools, 119 chose the restart model, and two chose the transformation model.

Since the list of recurring low-performing schools changes annually, Barbour said she can’t state definitively how many schools have failed to take advantage of the program.

But while empirical data may be lacking, Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, says districts were once clamoring for charter-like flexibility, but fewer than expected are opting for the programs.

“Districts have been asking for this kind of flexibility for years,” said Stoops.

“They argued that the lack of flexibility was a barrier to innovation. Specifically, they complained that state and federal law made it impossible to replicate some of the innovative and successful policies and practices employed by charter schools.”

Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools can employ unlicensed teachers, adjust the length of school days, and alter the curriculum.

“The question is, Why are so few districts willing to ask for it if it is something they have always wanted?” Stoops asked.

Restart schools have more charter-like flexibility in hiring staff, setting the academic calendar, and spending state money, but they’re still required to provide transportation and meal plans — like traditional public schools.

The State Board of Education voted during last week’s monthly meeting to allow eight public schools to use the restart model in an effort to turn around continual low-performance. But, during that same meeting, the board also approved a request from Durham Public Schools to drop 12 schools from a list of 14 considered for the restart model.

School districts in Johnston County, Vance, North Hampton, and New Hanover have requested charter-like flexibility for their struggling schools. Durham wants just two of its schools to adopt the model.

The Durham Board of Education and its new Superintendent Pascal Mubenga wrote the state board in December requesting the change.

According to the Herald Sun, Mubenga cited financial concerns over running 14 restart schools simultaneously as a reason to start with only two schools. The Durham superintendent said the K-3 class size mandate added another financial challenge, warranting the board’s full attention.

Stoops isn’t sure why fewer school districts than expected are vying for the restart model, but he has some theories.

“You have a school district that has a certain amount of standardization in operations, and when you start providing schools alternatives to that there is going to be some added expense with catering to those schools,” Stoops explained.

While that may explain why a large district such as Durham may hesitate to run 14 restart schools, Stoops doesn’t think it applies to smaller, more rural districts with less complex operations such as Bertie County.

“Maybe they are just scared, and I don’t blame them for being scared. When you do a restart model and start making changes, you only have yourself to blame if things don’t work out,” Stoops said. “There is a comfort in being able to say, ‘Well the state is making me do xyz,’ but if you lose that scapegoat through flexibility, then it is very clear there is no one else to blame.”

Barbour said there isn’t enough data to conclude about how well the restart model is working, especially since many schools take the first school year as a planning period. Barbour, sans more data, isn’t ready to speculate about a possible decline in enthusiasm for charter-like flexibility.

“I think what’s happening is people are learning a lot about this experience and are asking a lot of questions,” Barbour said. “They are being more thoughtful about the applications they are submitting.”