Education

House and Senate approve bill to change Innovative School District selection process

A Republican-sponsored bill to reform the way low-performing schools are selected for the state’s controversial Innovation School District (ISD) received favorable hearings in the House and Senate on Tuesday.

A conference report on Senate Bill 522 was approved over the objections of House and Senate Democrats who argued the ISD hasn’t worked at Southside-Ashpole Elementary School, the state’s lone ISD school in Robeson County.

“After the first year, that school [Southside] ended up with an “F” grade, it didn’t meet the academic growth standards, the percentage of students passing state exams dropped, and in fact in the 2018-2019 school year, both the head of that school and the superintendent were fired,” said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat.

Chaudhuri is referring to the sudden departures of former ISD superintendent LaTeesa Allen’s whose last day on the job was June 28 and Bruce Major, the Southside principle who resigned July 1.

N.C. Department Department of Public Instruction officials have not shared any details about the departures.

Policy Watch reported on Southside’s rocky schoolyear and sudden leadership departures earlier this month.

Chaudhuri also argued that similar school-takeover experiments in other states have failed, noting that officials in Tennessee have begun to rethink that state’s Achievement School district after six years of little academic progress.

“According to a study that came out earlier this year, these districts have not resulted in any improvement in student achievement for the first six years,” Chaudhuri said.

He compared the approval of SB 522 to the GOP decision to lift the enrollment cap on the state’s two virtual schools despite little evidence of academic success since the pilot program began in 2015. GOP took matters a step further by extending the program until 2023.

Chaudhuri said the decisions to lift the enrollment cap on virtual charters and approve the growth of the ISD are tantamount to awarding failure.

“Now, we are here with the sequel to that bill [that lifted the cap on enrollment at virtual schools] that should be called the reward failure act 2,” Chaudhuri said.

Sen. Rick Horner, a Johnston County Republican, acknowledged that Southside and ISD struggled during their first year of operation.

But he said approval of SB 522 is a better course than the alternative, which is to allow the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to automatically select four new schools into the ISD, which the current law mandates.

“If we fail to pass this bill, four schools automatically go into a system Sen. [Jay] Chaudhuri has said doesn’t work very well,” Horner said. “That’s current law.”

SB 522 is intended to help state officials avoid a messy selection process that has led to boisterous protests in communities when schools are selected for ISD. 

Under SB 522, low-performing schools would be placed on a qualifying list. Schools that remain on the qualifying list the next year would be moved to the ISD watch list, then to a warning list before becoming eligible for takeover by the ISD.

To be eligible for ISD, a must have been on the ISD warning list the previous year, remain a qualifying school in the current year based on data from the previous school year and be one of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

The bill also provides from voluntary entry into the ISD if fewer than five schools are selected. With the approval of the ISD superintendent, local school boards may request that a low-performing school be taken over by the ISD.

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