Yesterday, the House Education – K-12 Committee approved HB 1080, which would create an “achievement school district.” Under the bill, five low-performing elementary schools would be selected to have their operation turned over to a charter school operator (an “AS operator”).
There is no evidence that the ASD model works. In Tennessee, ASD schools have not experienced any statistically significant increase in test scores. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has seriously considered education policy. There’s no reason to believe that changing school management and exacerbating teacher turnover would address any of the underlying problems faced by student s in low-achieving schools.
The ASD model is even less likely to be successful in North Carolina under HB 1080, as the bill suffers from a number of technical issues that will hamper the model’s already-slim opportunities for success. Problems include:
- Expanded opportunities for corruption: This bill suffers from weak governance requirements, leaving open opportunities for corruption.
- A troublesome funding mechanism: The memorandum of understanding (MOU) method suffers from poorly-defined terms that will undoubtedly lead to litigation.
- Inadequate program evaluation: The program design does not allow for meaningful evaluation, rendering the evaluation language meaningless.
- Timing issues: In some cases, tasks must be completed in an order that doesn’t make sense. In other cases, there’s a lack of adequate time to complete required tasks.
Expanded opportunities for corruption
HB 1080’s lack of adequate governance would open several opportunities for corruption:
- The selection of the AS operator (the outside charter management organization) does not have to go through a transparent request for proposal (RFP) process.
- There is no limit on fees collected by the AS operator.
- There is no firewall on employment or payments being made between the AS operator and the ASD Superintendent responsible for oversight of the AS operator.
A troublesome funding mechanism
HB 1080 offers two funding methods: “designated funding” where funding would mirror the process for funding charter schools, and the “MOU method” where funding would be outlined in a memorandum of understanding negotiated between the school district and the AS operator.
The terms of the MOU method are poorly-defined, increasing the likelihood of disputes between the AS operator and school districts. HB 1080 defines “student support and operational services” as including “cafeteria services, custodial services, broadband and utilities, and student information services,” while instructional services include “alternative education, special education services, test administration services, textbooks, technology, media resources, instructional equipment, and other resources.” Very few of these items are defined, and it is impossible to know what “would have been expended” if the school had not converted to becoming an ASD school. Many of the services listed are shared across schools, making it difficult to attribute dollar figures to a specific school. Furthermore, the inclusion of “other resources” allows the AS operator to take a maximalist approach in arguing the appropriate funding level.
Inadequate program evaluation
The program design ignores General Assembly standards for evaluating pilot programs. A meaningful evaluation would compare the results of the ASD schools against similar schools that are not part of the ASD. To achieve this, schools would need to be selected into the ASD via a lottery process. It would take approximately 40-50 applicants to get statistically valid results allowing the evaluator to compare the performance of ASD schools against the performance of similar schools that were not part of the ASD. It is unlikely that the ASD would attract anywhere near that number of applicants.
Additionally, it is unclear how any evaluation will examine “the impact of public versus private funding in the effectiveness of the Achievement School District.” This language reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of both school finance and program evaluation. In any school, private and public revenues are almost always comingled. Within a given school, you are unlikely to find certain projects funded with a discrete pot of private money and other projects funded with discrete pots of public money. Even if this were the case, an evaluator would be unable to attribute student outcomes to a specific program if the program was offered to all students within a school.
HB 1080 requires certain tasks to be completed in an order that does not make sense:
- The State Board is required to select the AS operator before knowing which schools will be part of the Achievement School District. This is problematic because the experience of AS operators is likely to be location-specific. That is, the AS operator might have a track record of turning around urban schools, but all the ASD schools might end up being rural. Ideally, the AS operator’s skill-set and experience would align to the issues faced by the ASD schools. However, the timing of this bill means that the SBE will be selecting an AS operator before knowing which schools will be in the ASD.
- The SBE is required to make decisions on the AS operator’s contract “no later than May 1” which means they won’t have any performance data available. End-of-grade and end-of-course tests are administered through the beginning of June. If decisions on the AS operator’s contract are to be performance-based, then this date needs to be pushed back.
Additionally, HB 1080 provides inadequate time for the AS operator and the school district to finalize the MOU funding process. Given the complicated and contentious process created by this bill, such negotiations are unlikely to be completed within 30 days.
Even under the best conditions, there is no evidence that ASDs work. HB 1080 falls short of providing the best conditions. This bill has been worked on for over a year, and it’s still in very rough shape.
Both the ASD concept and this specific bill’s problems are symptoms of a General Assembly that is averse to putting in the hard work required for good governance. After all, policymakers already know how to turn around low-performing schoolsthrough evidence-based interventions including:
- Recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers
- Expanding learning time
- Investing in high-quality pre-kindergarten programs
- Addressing poverty-related issues such as child nutrition and mental health
- Integrating schools
Unfortunately, these interventions would require investments of both additional funding and hard work. Instead, the General Assembly has offered HB 1080, a poorly-crafted attempt at finding an easy “silver bullet” solution for improving low-performing schools. Based on HB 1080 and its multitude of technical issues, it is clear that the General Assembly is unwilling to make the investments required to seriously address the issues faced by low-performing schools in North Carolina.