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Group warns of potential problems for achievement school districts in North Carolina

Rep.-Bryan-Achievement-SchoWhile lawmakers on a state House committee considered a timetable for approval of legislation creating achievement school districts Wednesday, an official representing local school boards warned legislators that there could be legal troubles ahead for the controversial school reform method.

“While we are now on version 51 (of this bill), there are still tons of unanswered questions,” said Bruce Mildwurf, associate director of government relations for the N.C. School Boards Association.

The proposal, championed by Rep. Rob Bryan, a Mecklenburg County Republican, would carve some chronically struggling schools into one state-run school district in which school management could be delegated to for-profit charter operators.

Mildwurf told the House Select Committee on Achievement School Districts that at least a couple of components of the bill could pose problems for local boards.

Firstly, Mildwurf pointed out the draft legislation holds local school boards responsible for maintenance and upkeep in the school buildings after charter operators take over the facility.

“As you know, there is very little money out there districts currently have for this stuff,” said Mildwurf. “Who determines what repairs are needed? Who’s liable for injuries?”

Mildwurf also pointed out that, in Tennessee, charter operators running schools in the achievement district have the flexibility to run the school on an amended calendar with different hours.

Given that the bill indicates local school systems would be charged with continuing transportation to the school, he said that schedule could be a major problem for local school bus fleets.

“How can the district be held responsible for that transportation if they go to school on Saturday?” he added. “If they get out at 5 o’clock?”

Mildwurf did not receive any public answers to his inquiries Wednesday, but Bryan emphasized that the legislation continues to be a work in progress. He told committee members he hoped to have suggested revisions from panel members by early April, in time for a mid-April vote on a draft bill.

The committee also heard competing accounts of the district’s performance in Tennessee, which helped fund the program with a $500 million grant from the federal government.

Malika Anderson, superintendent of Tennessee’s achievement district, said the effort got off to a rocky start, but has since stabilized, pointing to some improvements in  math and science scores in second- and third-year ASD schools. 

However, Vanderbilt University researcher Gary Henry also presented his data to the committee, which found “no statistically significant” impacts in reading, math or science scores in ASD schools.

To contrast, Henry’s research indicated “moderate to large” gains for students in Tennessee’s “iZones,” a locally-run school turnaround effort that funnels more funding, flexible calendars and professional development to troubled schools.

The version of Bryan’s legislation released Wednesday did include “iZones” for the first time.

Meanwhile, Josh Glazer, an associate professor at George Washington University who has studied school turnaround in other states, warned committee members Wednesday to expect that results in the achievement school district would take at least three to four years.

“Even if you have an experienced provider, it is probably not wise to assume they’re going to come and really hit the ground running and see results in the first year,” said Glazer.

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