Charter school operators could takeover struggling schools, replace teachers and staff

Private charter school operators that include for-profit companies could be in line to inherit low-performing schools in North Carolina, prompting changes that could result in mass firings of teachers and staff at some of the state’s most struggling schools.

Rep. Rob Bryan (R-Mecklenburg)

Rep. Rob Bryan (R-Mecklenburg)

Rep. Rob Bryan (R-Mecklenburg) is pushing a bill that would pull five of the state’s lowest-performing elementary schools out of their local school districts and put them into a state-controlled ‘achievement school district.’

This new achievement district would be able to fire all teachers and staff and enter into five year contracts with private charter school management companies to handle the schools’ operations.

“I don’t think perpetually failing schools are acceptable,” said Bryan, who described the draft proposal as a small pilot only open to charter school operators with experience in serving turnaround schools.

A draft version of the legislation that was obtained by N.C. Policy Watch is inserted into a gutted Senate Bill 95, which originally directed local boards of education to adopt performance-based reduction in force (RIF) policies.  (Read the new bill at the end of this post)

Modeled after similar efforts in Memphis, New Orleans and in other locales, the concept of an achievement school district has met considerable push back by teachers, politicians and the general public in those areas. [For more background, read my story from Wednesday titled “Is North Carolina next in line for New Orleans-style takeovers of failing schools?]

Schools takeovers by charter operators in Memphis have been met with anger and frustration by parents, who never bought into the concept of having their neighborhood schools transformed overnight.

Teachers hoping to hold on to their tenure rights fled the turnaround schools for more stable work environments, and parents who had the means pulled their kids from the charter school takeovers in search of alternative options, leaving even larger concentrations of low-income, at-risk youth in the ASD schools.

Rep. Bryan’s draft legislation would use the following criteria to identify ‘achievement schools’ that could be placed in an ASD:

  1. Earned a grade of F on the annual report card for a minimum of two consecutive years;
  2. Received a school performance score that is in the lowest 25 percent of all K-5 schools during those two years; and
  3. Is classified as low-performing by the State Board of Education.

If a local school district wants to prevent low-performing schools from being moved to the achievement school district, the local school district would have the alternative option of shutting the school down.

The ASD’s superintendent (chosen by a search committee headed up by the Lieutenant Governor, who is a vocal critic of public education) could recommend the State Board of Education contract with an appropriate charter school management company to run the schools.

That charter operator must have a history of improving performance in persistently low-performing school and has a specific plan for dramatically improving student achievement in low-performing schools.

Nothing in the proposed legislation in its current form requires interested charter management companies would have to go through the current application process to set up shop in North Carolina.

Currently, prospective charter school operators must submit lengthy applications to a review board comprising industry experts. Those who receive final approval by the State Board of Education then must engage in a planning year prior to opening in which their governance, financial and academic operations are closely monitored before the school year begins.

Charter operators managing ASD schools could opt to fire the principal, staff and teachers and replace them with new ones.

“I think people generally recognize on both sides of the aisle that one of the problems in low-performing schools is I’ve had someone call the ‘dance of the lemons’ happens,” explained Bryan about the importance of allowing ASD schools to hire new staff.

“Sometimes bad teachers get moved to a school where they get the least complaints, and it’s very hard to move them out,” said Bryan, explaining that in an environment where there is a preponderance of poor-performing teachers, firing the bad ones in an ASD-managed school “certainly makes that easier.”

Asked whether or not the proposed legislation would include standards for hiring high quality teachers to teach in the ASD schools, Bryan said the charters can be trusted to hire good teachers.

Bryan also highlighted research that indicates Teach for America corps members have good outcomes in low-performing schools, suggesting that those teachers could make for a good hiring choice in the ASD schools, despite their poor track record of staying in the classroom beyond a few years.

“[TFA teachers] don’t stay,” acknowledged Bryan, a TFA alum himself. “But you would be better served to have a TFA teacher every two years all the way through. Your results, based on the existing data—that would be better for you.”

Bryan expects the bill to be heard in a House committee in about two weeks. If it’s approved, it would only have to go to the Senate for concurrence.

Investigative reporter Sarah Ovaska contributed to this report.

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