The Robeson County elementary school tapped for North Carolina’s controversial Innovative School District (ISD) is likely to close, the county’s school board chair tells Policy Watch, potentially leaving the state’s new charter takeover program without a school to take over in its first year.
“The state has failed us,” said Peggy Wilkins-Chavis, chairwoman of the Robeson County Board of Education.
If so, it would be a stunning setback for a school choice expansion program that so rankled public school advocates when it was approved by state lawmakers last year.
Pitched as a boon to long-lagging schools, the program would allow private charter operators, including for-profit groups, to seize control of operations and staffing at a traditional public school, with the goal of turning around dismal test scores.
But critics savaged the reform as little more than the privatization of public schools, also noting middling results from similar takeover efforts in states such as Tennessee, Louisiana and Michigan.
“It’s unfortunate that big out of state money led the General Assembly to pass a charter takeover law that is ripping communities apart,” said N.C. Association of Educators President Mark Jewell Friday. “Instead of starving our schools of resources the General Assembly should make the necessary investments to help our students be successful.”
Wilkins-Chavis spoke to Policy Watch Thursday, shortly after members of the State Board of Education officially selected Robeson’s Southside-Ashpole Elementary for the takeover district.
State law allows for district leaders to accept the takeover or move to close the school by February, a prospect that Wilkins-Chavis described as increasingly likely. District officials would redistribute students and staff at the Rowland elementary throughout the school system.
Meanwhile, the Robeson school board chair—who initially indicated support for the program before a late surge of public opposition in the southeastern North Carolina district—said she’s glad the Innovative School District may sputter in its first year.
“They have no one to blame but themselves,” Wilkins-Chavis said. “They did it the wrong way.”
Without a school to take over, ISD Superintendent Eric Hall says the district may have to pick up additional schools when they take up the matter next year. Leaders were expected to choose two schools this year and another two next fall, but this month’s developments are likely to shift that timetable.
State law clears the district to absorb at least five schools statewide in the coming years.
Southside-Ashpole was the final school remaining last month after Hall whittled down a list of 48 eligible schools, selected because they reported performance scores in the bottom 5 percent statewide and did not meet growth goals in at least one of the prior three academic years.
The K-5 school, which enrolls more than 200 students, finished with “F” scores in reading and math in 2016, according to state records.
Hall has said the initiative would spur fresh ideas in the chronically low-performing school, but county commissioners and school board members bristled at the prospect of a private takeover in recent weeks.
Wilkins-Chavis also slammed state leaders Thursday because she says they did not consider recent storm damage when they tapped the Robeson County school for the ISD.
School officials are expected to spend millions in the coming years to replace school facilities, including the district’s central office, after Hurricane Matthew flooded the rural county with heavy rains in 2016.
“We’re already down,” Wilkins-Chavis said. “Why throw us down farther?”
But Hall has countered that the district’s struggles preceded the storm. He also pointed out that the three school districts that landed on the ISD’s final list with Robeson County presented plans to his office for improvements at their respective schools, but Robeson did not until after he recommended Southside-Ashpole to the State Board of Education in mid-October.
Some state board members seemed angry this week when talk turned to the possibility of school closure in Robeson County.
“Where does this leave the Innovative School District?” asked Olivia Holmes Oxendine, a UNC-Pembroke assistant professor and Robeson County resident appointed to the state board by former Gov. Pat McCrory in 2013.
Oxendine, an ISD supporter, said she was disappointed that state leaders hoped to begin with just one school in the 2018-2019 academic year. “It isn’t the reform model I envisioned,” she said.
However, Hall described the program’s slow roll-out as an opportunity for North Carolina officials to learn as they proceed with the new district.
“It’s about going slow to go right,” said Hall.
Robeson Board of Education members are expected to take up their options on Southside-Ashpole Elementary next week, Wilkins-Chavis said. Stay tuned for more Policy Watch coverage.