Commentary

Schoolteacher, DPI insider blast Superintendent Mark Johnson’s destructive layoffs

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson

Forsyth County public school teacher Stu Egan has a fine new entry on his Caffeinated Rage blog about state schools superintendent Mark Johnson’s latest purge at the Department of Public Instruction. In “The State Superintendent Meets With Privatizers on Monday, Then 40 People Were Laid Off at DPI on Friday,” Egan points out that the firings (and the elimination of 21 other positions) were both especially treacherous for a variety of reasons — not the least of which is that they targeted staffers dedicated to helping low performing schools.

Egan’s post is definitely worth your time — as is the comment that appeared on Egan’s site (and that appears below — with paragraph breaks added for clarity) from an anonymous DPI insider:

Thanks for your article. It is worse than you know. I lost many colleagues and friends on Friday, folks who served the State of North Carolina well and did a good job for DPI and for schools across the state. What a shame.

Superintendent Johnson wrote us Friday afternoon and said we should ‘be sensitive to their situations during this time.’ Yeah, I’m sensitive…mad as hell that they’ve been canned for no good reason. Yes, those of us who are left at DPI continue to reel from this Superintendent’s lack of interest/support and total disregard of our work. All semblances of leadership from him and ‘his team’ are vacant and absent.

Speaking of which, he regularly refers to ‘his team’, which are the folks he has hand-picked to come on board in key leadership positions. WE, the hundreds of others who were here before he arrived and hopefully will remain when vacates, are supposed to be ‘his team’; it’s an insult to all of us every time he mentions it.

Know how many years of NC public school teaching experience ‘his team’ has? 30? 40? 50? Read more

Commentary

Editorial: State school takeover turns “slimy”

In case you missed it, be sure to check out an editorial that ran in the Charlotte Observer this weekend on the latest developments with North Carolina’s so-called “Innovative School District.” As Policy Watch readers will recall, the ISD is yet another school privatization scheme from legislative conservatives that calls for private operators to take over troubled schools. As readers will also recall, however, the plan has been nothing short of a disaster since its inception and has thus far managed to effect the takeover of only a single school by a single, unqualified contractor.

This is from the Observer editorial “Charlotte company behind a promising schools idea that’s become an embarrassment” that describes the developments around the planned takeover as “slimy”:

“ISD officials have struggled to find a qualified company to operate the one school initially chosen for takeover — Southside Ashpole Elementary in Robeson County. The operator that’s finally gotten the nod — Charlotte-based Achievement for All Children (AAC) — looks bad in every important way. AAC is only a year old and doesn’t have the long history of success that ISD’s creators had envisioned. Neither does a company that AAC chose as an operating partner, TeamCFA, which has a mixed record of student achievement in 13 N.C. Charter schools. That deficiency appears to violate the 2016 law that requires the operator or its partners to have a record of improving persistently low-performing schools and students.

An ISD-commissioned evaluator, SchoolWorks, also found that AAC was deficient in seven of 11 operational criteria, including startup planning, goals and “mission and vision.” In addition, SchoolWorks was alarmingly skeptical about AAC’s funding model.

But that may not be the worst part. AAC’s operating partner, TeamCFA, was founded by Oregon’s John Bryan, who contributed generously to N.C. political campaigns and has taken credit for getting the ISD law passed. On AAC’s board is Rob Bryan, the law’s author.

At the least, it’s horrible optics. At worst, it appears that North Carolina may have been scammed.

The state school board approved AAC in a somewhat contentious 7-4 vote this month, but as part of that approval, AAC must submit a response to SchoolWorks’ concerns. ISD superintendent Eric Hall told the Observer editorial board Friday he expected that response by day’s end. Hall said he’ll review it and report to the state school board. He stressed that the ISD has “significant accountability” in place.

Hall and the board should demonstrate that. Hiring AAC is, simply, an embarrassment, and any school board member voting to move forward with the company is doing a disservice not only to the students of Southside Ashpole, but to the Innovative School District overall.”

Education, News

On eve of vote, State Board of Education divided on contract with controversial school takeover operator

A former state lawmaker, Rob Bryan, is part of a private group hoping to win a contract in the program he helped to legalize.

On the eve of a crucial vote, the State Board of Education is clearly split on a recommendation to approve a prospective operator for the Innovative School District that’s troubled by claims of ethical conflicts and myriad questions about their curriculum and limited track record.

Board members are expected to vote Thursday morning on a contract with Achievement for All Children (AAC), a Charlotte-based nonprofit that hopes to take over operations and staffing in a beleaguered Robeson County elementary this year.

Yet Wednesday’s lengthy debate—which often centered on a particularly lukewarm, third-party assessment of the one-year-old group—left little clarity on where the state panel would ultimately come down on the issue of who will ultimately pilot Southside-Ashpole Elementary.

The board fielded just two applications for the program’s first year, and neither group earned stellar marks. Some have suggested the panel should re-open the application process.

“I for one believe that we’re at a point where we can take a calculated risk and go forward with [this] recommendation,” said board Chairman Bill Cobey. “I’m willing to stick my neck out on that.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican school choice advocate who sits on the board, said the state needs new ideas for some long-struggling public schools. “We’re looking at one opportunity to do something innovative,” said Forest. “I don’t think we should be scared of that.”

Others, however, questioned how the board could go along with the recommendation for a group that had “met expectations” on just four of 11 sections of the state’s independent assessment of their capabilities.

State Board of Education member Eric Davis

“The children of this school need our best,” said board member Eric Davis. “Not four out of 11, they need better than that.”

As Policy Watch detailed today, the contract is laden with concerns about AAC’s deep ties to the state legislature and influential school choice advocates. Indeed, ex-state legislator Rob Bryan, who co-sponsored the bill creating the program two years ago, is on the organization’s board of directors.

The group is also facing criticism that it formed just last year, when state law calls for an operator with a “record of results” or has a contractual affiliation with an organization with a track record.

AAC has inked a contract to work with TeamCFA, a charter school chain with 13 schools in North Carolina, but state officials have acknowledged the chain’s “mixed” results in other schools.

“I don’t know that we can afford an operator with mixed results,” Jason Griffin, North Carolina’s Principal of the Year and an adviser to the state board, said Wednesday.

Nevertheless, Innovative School District Superintendent Eric Hall, who recommended AAC for the job last month, says the nonprofit emerged from a “rigorous” process and evaluation by Massachusetts-based School Works as the best fit. He complimented AAC’s plan for “competitive” teacher salaries and its responsiveness to state concerns during the process.

“That’s what you want from a good partner, someone that is going to step forward and respond to things when you need it,” said Hall.

Hall also emphasized that the law allows for annual reviews of the operator’s progress.

State Board of Education member Amy White

Board member Amy White said these “checks and balances” convinced her to support Hall’s recommendation.

“There has to be a first for somebody, and there has to be a first school,” White said.

Others, like board member Wayne McDevitt, were not convinced. “I still have a lot of concerns about assuring that we do the right thing here,” McDevitt said. “I’m not there. We’ve got to be very, very sure that we’re coming out of the blocks right.”

Davis said he “couldn’t get comfortable” with the AAC recommendation based on the gaps in its evaluation.

“I’m all for giving someone the first chance,” he said. “But I’m not all for risking the education of over 300 students just to give some adults the first chance. I think (the students) deserve better. They deserve an operator with a proven track record.”

Thursday’s state board meeting begins at 9 a.m. in the seventh floor of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction building in Raleigh. Find audio streaming of the meeting here.

Education, News

State official picks nonprofit with ties to school choice leaders, including an ex-lawmaker, to helm Robeson County school takeover

A North Carolina official will recommend a Forest City nonprofit with deep ties to the state’s school choice movement—including the ex-legislator who spearheaded the program’s creation—to helm the controversial school takeover program in Robeson County.

Officials with the Innovative School District (ISD) passed along their recommendation to the State Board of Education Monday, after weeks of back-and-forth over the qualifications of the two organizations vying for the job in 2018-2019.

ISD Superintendent Eric Hall said he is recommending Achievement for All Children (AAC), which formed last year, following a third-party review, background checks, community panel discussions and a “comprehensive” application.

“I am impressed with both AAC and The Romine Group (TRG) for their willingness to engage with the ISD in the challenging work to improve outcomes in low-performing schools and participate in a very rigorous selection process,” Hall said in a statement Monday.

“I also want to extend my gratitude to the community panel members from Rowland and surrounding Robeson County who participated in the selection process; their input was essential in making sure our recommendation was the right fit for the students at Southside Ashpole, their families and the Rowland community.”

The State Board of Education is expected to vote on Hall’s recommendation in April.

Former state legislator Rob Bryan

As Policy Watch has reported, AAC launched under the leadership of several influential school choice boosters in the state, including former state Rep. Rob Bryan, the Charlotte lawmaker who led the push to legalize the takeover program two years ago.

Meanwhile, its CEO, Tony Helton, serves in the same position for TeamCFA, a charter network that runs 13 schools in North Carolina.

TeamCFA is also connected to John Bryan (no relation to Rob Bryan), a wealthy, Oregon-based school choice advocate who helped to lobby for the takeover program.

Supporters of the takeover program say it will bring reforms to long-struggling, public schools. But critics note similar efforts’ poor results in states like Tennessee, Michigan and Louisiana.

In a release, the ISD program lauded Achievement for All Children’s “strong commitment to implementing a comprehensive system of support to serve the needs of all students at Southside Ashpole, improving academic outcomes, and engaging in a partnership with the local community.”

News

State Board of Education members miffed by charter takeover district’s slow roll-out

State Board of Education members on Thursday approved the recommendation to launch a controversial charter takeover district with a struggling Robeson County elementary next year, but multiple members expressed frustration that the program would begin with just one school in 2018-2019.

“It isn’t the reform model I envisioned,” said Olivia Holmes Oxendine, a state board member who also resides in Robeson.

State law calls for the district to eventually choose at least five low-performing schools for the Innovative School District (ISD). And while district Superintendent Eric Hall was initially expected to pick at least two for the program’s first year in 2018-2019, Hall opted last month to tap Robeson’s Southside-Ashpole Elementary out of a list of four remaining schools in the state.

Hall said that’s because a relatively slow roll-out allows for state leaders to learn as they go along. “I want there to be no doubt about the fact that push-back is not my concern,” said Hall. “It’s about going slow to go right.”

But multiple state board members, including Oxendine, seemed miffed by that strategy this week.

“The model was a minimum of five schools and we were going to do something very bold and robust,” said Oxendine. “We were going to do it better than Tennessee or other states, because North Carolina does things better than other states.”

State Board of Education member Olivia Holmes Oxendine

Oxendine questioned why the three struggling schools that made the short-list with Southside-Ashpole—Glenn Elementary in Durham, Willis Hare Elementary in Northampton County Schools and Williford Elementary in Nash-Rocky Mount Schools—were dropped from consideration for next year.

“Each one of those schools needs to be in this model,” she said. “Absolutely needs to be.”

Oxendine demanded that state board members not forget those low-performing schools, which submitted already enacted plans for improvement in the coming years. Oxendine called on leaders to “hold their feet to the fire.”

Board member Amy White agreed, arguing that the board should require “excellence” of all schools. “It is our job to put upon those schools and those students,” said White.

The contentious charter takeover program was approved by North Carolina lawmakers last year. Supporters said the district would bring change to long-struggling traditional public schools.

Eligible schools reported performance scores in the bottom 5 percent statewide and did not meet growth goals in at least one the last three academic years.

Southside-Ashpole earned “F” scores in reading and math and did not meet growth expectations in 2016-2017, according to state data.

But skeptics argued the model, which produced lackluster results in states like Tennessee and Louisiana, would open the door for a particularly aggressive school choice expansion and, perhaps, for-profit takeovers of publicly-funded schools.

The proposal spurred heated opposition from locals in those schools being considered for the ISD’s launch year, particularly in Durham and in Robeson County, a rural, high-poverty county in eastern North Carolina.

Oxendine noted Thursday that local leaders in Robeson are already “engaged” in talks to close their selected school, the only option left to district leaders opposing the takeover model under state law. Local board members will have until February to choose whether they accept the takeover or close.

Hall said he hopes the district will not close Southside-Ashpole Elementary because its students would only be redistributed across the district.

If, however, Robeson leaders choose to close the elementary, state leaders would be left with no schools to choose from in the ISD’s first year. In that scenario, the state might have to select more schools for inclusion next year, Hall said.

Hall added that his office will receive new accountability data to review next September before he makes additional recommendations for the district. “We’ll be right back in this same spot,” he said.

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