A key state House committee gave its approval Wednesday night to legislation that would allow the creation of a so-called “achievement school district” that could turn over operation, including hiring and firing powers, of some low-performing schools to for-profit, charter operators.
The controversial measure, much criticized by many public school advocates, is expected to head to the state House floor in the coming days. Its chief proponent, Mecklenburg County Republican Rob Bryan, has argued that it will provide much-needed reforms in chronically struggling schools.
Yet Wednesday’s approval—passed 18-11—came despite rumblings that some influential Republicans were questioning the cost of the program and the lackluster results of a similar program in neighboring Tennessee.
It came two days after House Speaker Tim Moore approved a handful of last-minute appointments to the House Education Committee, including the bill’s co-sponsor, Rep. John Bradford III, a Republican from Mecklenburg County, raising questions of whether the appointments were made to ensure the bill’s passage this week.
And its approval came shortly after a group of protesters chanted, “We are teachers, we say shame.” Committee Co-Chair Linda Johnson ordered the protesters removed.
Bryan’s bill would pull five of the state’s lowest-performing schools, regardless of geography, into one district for a pilot program. The district would have a superintendent chosen by the State Board of Education who could turn over management of the schools to charter operators for five-year contracts.
On Wednesday, Bryan acknowledged “mixed results” for the program in Tennessee, but argued that the district did report some gains in the third year of operations.
“We can compare it to other states, but we’re looking to create something unique for North Carolina with its own guard-rails and parameters where we’re learning from other states,” said Bryan.
Bryan pointed out the bill allows for the state to cancel the contract with the operators should the schools fail to surpass their peer schools.
“It’s always easy to wait, to keep waiting,” Bryan added. “For me, I just got to a point where every year a kid stays in one of these failing schools is a year that is lost. You can’t get them back.”
But public school leaders, including N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson, have been openly critical of the idea throughout the discussion.
Atkinson told Policy Watch in January that she believes the state “would get a better return on their investments by going with a model that has proven positive results.”
Atkinson said the state’s efforts would be better spent offering additional support and funding to low-performing schools, in addition to greater flexibility in their calendar and curriculum.
Mark Jewell, president-elect of the N.C. Association of Educators, which represents teachers across the state, also urged legislators to vote down the bill Wednesday, calling it a “new layer of bureaucracy that lacks the accountability to ensure public dollars are being spent effectively.”
Yet the arguments Wednesday failed to sway lawmakers who passed the bill in a roll call vote.
Rep. Kyle Hall, a Republican representing Rockingham and Stokes counties, put forth an amendment to transfer capital facility maintenance over to the State Board of Education rather than keeping responsibility for that funding with local districts.
Hall argued that he “fears county commissioners will prioritize schools they currently operate and sort of put these on the back-burner.”
That amendment was rejected by committee members who said they believed such a move would set a precedent for state officials taking over county funding responsibilities.