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North Carolina public schools are seeking charter-like flexibility

preschoolLast week, at the Public School Forum of N.C.’s panel on low-performing schools, we heard from multiple principals who espoused the value of charter-like flexibility for their struggling schools.

“If one person speeds, I don’t think we all deserve a ticket,” said Kristy Thomas, principal at Rock Rest Elementary in Union County, arguing that burdensome restrictions for such schools could only slow their progress.

Not coincidentally, a new policy approved by the N.C. State Board of Education this year would allow certain low-performing schools to adopt some charter powers, such as amending the calendar year to cut days from the summer break. Educators frequently bemoan the loss of instructional progress over lengthy summer breaks.

Now, this from The News & Observer this weekend:

The Wake County school board gave permission last week for staff to request charter-like flexibility for Barwell Road and Walnut Creek elementary schools for the 2016-17 school year.

If the state board approves the request, Barwell and Walnut Creek could see changes such as more days in the school calendar. Wake may also be able to change the way it staffs both schools, including how teachers are paid.

“When you have flexibility in how you staff and the instructional program, you have the potential to do some creative things that you were not able to do before because of state law,” said Marvin Connelly, the Wake school system’s chief of staff and strategic planning.

The reasons, based on the N&O’s report, are clear.

Charter schools are exempt from some rules, such as North Carolina’s calendar law that sets when schools begin and end the school year. The calendar law also limits how many school days can be scheduled.

Charters also have more flexibility in how they can spend state money. They receive exemptions because they are taxpayer-funded public schools that are meant to be laboratories for innovation.

Wake County is among the school systems that have long sought permission from state legislators to operate their own charter schools or to allow their schools to have the same flexibility as charters. The General Assembly has largely rebuffed those requests.

But the new state Board of Education policy says “recurring low-performing schools” – those that have been low performing for two of the last three years – can get charterlike flexibility. The policy approved in March carries out provisions from a 2010 lawpassed by the General Assembly, when it still had a Democratic majority.

And Wake school leaders aren’t the only ones eager to pursue the model.

State schools Superintendent June Atkinson said at least 15 superintendents have told her their districts are interested in using the restart model. But she said some superintendents indicated they may wait until the 2017-18 school year.

Atkinson said the restart model’s calendar flexibility is particularly attractive to school systems that want to reduce the amount of learning loss that occurs during long summer breaks.

“We know that some of our schools recognize that students need a different calendar to improve student achievement,” Atkinson said. “The summer months where students don’t have an opportunity to continue their learning aren’t in the best interests of students.”

But something that won’t change, according to state officials, is the requirement that quasi-charter schools must provide transportation and meals to students. Official charter schools are exempt from those two requirements.

With lawmakers on a select committee set to discuss legislation this week to turn over control over some low-performing schools to charter operators—the so-called “achievement school district”— flexibility figures to be a lingering debate this year.

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