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N&O dives into the wealthy donor who shepherded N.C.’s charter takeover program

At Policy Watch, we’ve reported extensively on the out-of-state advocates who helped to usher in North Carolina’s controversial Innovative School District (ISD), a school reform model that could shuttle control over low-performing schools to for-profit charter companies. As of last week, the state’s list of schools eligible for the ISD was down to four.

Now, The News & Observer has published a look at the wealthy Oregon businessman who pushed the model to state lawmakers in recent years.

Today’s report is part of a series of articles on school choice the paper will take up in the coming days.

From The N&O:

A school network founded by a wealthy Oregon resident is expanding quickly in North Carolina.

John Bryan founded the charter network TeamCFA, which has 13 schools in North Carolina – more than in any other state. Arizona has four TeamCFA schools, and Indiana has two.

Bryan’s influence extends beyond support for the schools themselves and into education policy. He is a generous contributor to political campaigns and school-choice causes in North Carolina.

In a letter posted to the network’s website in April, Bryan said his commitment of “significant economic resources” – contributions to politicians and nonprofit “social welfare” groups, and the engagement of investment advisers and others – helped win legislative approval of the controversial North Carolina law that will have charter operators take over up to five low-performing public schools.

A foundation Bryan supports helps schools with start-up costs and provides instructional support and money for technology. TeamCFA is a nonprofit network that provides $300,000 in forgivable loans to new schools that agree to its principles. Teachers in TeamCFA schools must be trained in a curriculum called Core Knowledge. Some TeamCFA schools have a classical education theme, but it is not required.

Three of the North Carolina schools opened this year. Student performance was mixed at the remaining schools. Five schools received Bs in the latest round of state grades, while four received Cs and one received a D.

Bryan, 84, was vice president of operations at Georgia Gulf until his retirement in 1989. An August 2002 edition of Atlanta Business Chronicle attributed Bryan’s wealth to company stock.

Bryan has been a contributor to conservative advocacy groups and Republican candidates. He gave the Fund for Growth, a conservative advocacy group, $210,000 in 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In 2014, he gave the conservative super PAC Opportunity Alliance $200,000 and Freedom Partners Action Fund, another conservative super PAC, $575,000.

In a 2011 “founder’s letter” posted online, Bryan described his philosophy and goals for the CFA operating foundation. One goal, he wrote, was to “inculcate my belief in the libertarian, free market, early American Founder’s principles” into both the foundation and the individual schools.

Long reliant on Bryan’s money, the TeamCFA board is attempting to expand its donor base. Last spring, TeamCFA announced a $1 million grant from the Charles Koch Foundation.

Bryan has also contributed to North CarolinaCAN, a group that supports charter schools. Marcus Brandon, North CarolinaCAN executive director, spoke out in support of the law allowing charter managers to take over traditional public schools as legislators debated it in 2016.

Bryan’s contributions over the years to North CarolinaCAN have not exceeded $50,000, Brandon said, and Bryan is not the group’s main source of funds.

Bryan was not available for an interview. TeamCFA responded to questions about the schools in an email, but said Bryan’s political contributions were his personal decisions.

“Mr. Bryan fell in love with North Carolina after spending many years in the Southeast,” the organization said in a statement. “He also found the people had similar values to which he was accustomed growing up in Livingston, Montana. In addition, the Core Knowledge curriculum, taught in our TeamCFA schools, is very appealing in a state that has always valued a well rounded education that includes not just math and English but science, literature, history, music, art and physical education.

 “Mr. Bryan believes in the school choice movement and believes in raising the bar of education. He believes very strongly in the principles of the free market system with competition spurring innovative thoughts and practices.”

In his April letter, Bryan was enthusiastic about the law passed last year that created what is now known as the Innovative School District. He envisioned that those traditional public schools chosen for the district could be converted permanently to charters if student performance improves.

“I am excited about the new North Carolina law which allows knowledgeable and experienced entities the possibility of taking over failing traditional public schools,” he wrote. “By raising a school’s ‘F’ rating to a ‘C’ rating within two years, such entities could gain permanent ownership and control of that school. If our organizations can show how this works for the good of a community, this approach could expand to other states, hopefully across the country!! How exciting that would be! And our team could be of help to others who want to travel the same road.”

Under the law passed last year, charter management companies are supposed to run the schools for five to eight years. The State Board of Education is scheduled to vote by Dec. 15 on at least two schools to be taken over in the 2018-19 school year. School boards will have until Feb. 1 to either transfer their schools to the program or close them.

In Tennessee, students in the Achievement School District that formed using the same model have not done better academically than students in comparable low-performing schools that weren’t taken over.

Bryan has contributed about $600,000 to legislative candidates in North Carolina, most of them Republican, and GOP political committees from 2011 to 2016. Included is a $100,000 contribution to a group supporting GOP candidates for the state Supreme Court. He contributed $50,000 to a political action committee called Truth & Prosperity, set up to support Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest.

A vocal charter-school champion, Forest has a seat on the State Board of Education. Forest’s general counsel and policy adviser, Steve Walker, is vice chairman of the state Charter School Advisory Board.

Forest said he met Bryan once, and doesn’t know why he gave to the PAC.

Forest said he doesn’t keep track of donations from charter supporters and the money does not “in any way influence the decisions I make.”

“I make the decisions, then people choose to support me because I make the decisions. It doesn’t go the other way around,” he said.

TeamCFA has other connections to state leaders. Gregg Sinders, a former adviser to retired Republican state Rep. Paul Stam of Apex, is state director for TeamCFA and on the board of a new charter school in Holly Springs. Chris Millis, a former member of the North Carolina House of Representatives and a Pender County Republican, is chairman of the board of a new TeamCFA school that opened this fall in New Hanover County.

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