Commentary, Special Session

Among its many weaknesses, HB 17 would remove protections for low-performing school program

The General Assembly unveiled 28 bills as part of this week’s second special session.  For those focused on education policy, the most wide-ranging and controversial bill is undoubtedly House Bill 17.  The bill goes to extraordinary lengths to strip Governor-elect Roy Cooper’s power, slashing the number exempt positions he can oversee from 1,500 to 300 and eliminating his ability to make appointments to university boards of trustees.  Additionally, the bill radically reorganizes governance of North Carolina’s public schools.  In nearly every way possible, the bill strips power from the State Board of Education to provide more authority to the newly-elected Republican Superintendent-elect of Public Schools, Mark Johnson.  If the bill becomes law, it will certainly be challenged in court due to constitutional issues.

An important part of the bill that might go unnoticed involves changes the oversight of the controversial Achievement School District (ASD) program.  The ASD program places five low-performing elementary schools under the operation of a charter school operator.  The program is based off a similar program in Tennessee that has failed to improve student performance.

Rep. Rob Bryan and Sen. Chad Barefoot both assured the public that North Carolina’s version of the program contains “guardrails” that will help North Carolina avoid the pitfalls of the Tennessee program.  While those claims were always dubious at best, HB 17 (sponsored by Rep. Bryan, who lost his election in November) would remove two of the program’s “guardrails.” 

Under the legislation that passed last year, the ASD program was set to be overseen and administered by the State Board of Education.  Under HB 17, administration of the program would be overseen solely by the newly-elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, Mark Johnson.  A sole individual will have less capacity than the State Board of Education to ensure the program operates effectively.  In its current form, the program already provides troubling opportunities for corruption, a confusing funding mechanism, and inadequate evaluation.

Additionally, the selection process for the ASD Superintendent was to include input from a teacher, principal, superintendent, and a parent of a student currently enrolled in a low-performing school.  Input from these stakeholders would have injected an important level of expertise into the ASD Superintendent selection process.  Bill proponents had especially hoped that the inclusion of parental input would lead to much-needed wraparound services for struggling students in these schools.  Services such as child nutrition, healthcare, and connecting students to other needed services improve student performance, and the benefits outweigh the budgetary costs.  Under HB 17, however, the selection of the ASD Superintendent would be done at the sole discretion of Superintendent Johnson, who would also be solely responsible for setting the salary of the ASD Superintendent.

For this, among many other reasons, it is important that NCGA leadership reject HB 17.

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