After heated debate, state House approves achievement school district bill

Rep. Cecil Brockman, D-Guilford, a co-sponsor of the bill.

Rep. Cecil Brockman, D-Guilford, a co-sponsor of the bill.

Following a bristling debate on the N.C. House of Representatives floor Thursday morning, House lawmakers have approved a controversial bill for a pilot program that could allow for-profit charter operators to assume control over low-performing schools.

House Bill 1080, which has sparked criticism from many public education advocates, was approved on its second reading by a 60-49 vote and cleared the House on a voice vote for its third reading. It’s now bound for the state Senate.

The bill’s co-sponsor, Guilford County Democrat Cecil Brockman, argued on the floor Thursday that the state’s public schools have failed African-American children, pointing out that roughly two-thirds of African-American students in the state are not achieving on grade level.

“If the majority of all children, if two-thirds, was failing in this state, it would be an outright crisis,” said Brockman. “We would be using every tool in the toolbox to fix this problem.”

Brockman also riled some public school advocates when he rebuffed another lawmaker’s compliments about teachers’ efforts in the schools.

“It’s not about teachers,” he said. “If they don’t like it, good. This is about the kids. Who cares about the teachers? We should care about the kids. If (teachers) don’t like it, maybe that’s a good thing.”

Brockman later apologized if his quotes seemed offensive to educators. “I was being provocative,” he added. “But my point was: We should care more about our kids.”

Supporters have long claimed that the bill is intended to assure badly-needed reforms in chronically low-performing schools in the state. The legislation pulls five of the state’s lowest-performing schools into one district, regardless of geography, and allows state leaders to contract out management, including staffing, at the schools to a for-profit, charter.

Policy Watch has reported extensively on the issue, pointing out support for the bill last year was being led by an Oregon businessman with a national network of charter schools, including schools in North Carolina.

We also reported Wednesday that advertising backing the legislation was being rolled out in North Carolina media outlets by a conservative, Oklahoma group with ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC, a national group behind scores of right-wing bills filed in U.S. states in recent decades.

House Bill 1080—sponsored by Brockman and two Charlotte-area Republicans, Rep. Rob Bryan and Rep. John Bradford III—earned fierce criticism on the House floor from mostly Democrats, although at least one Republican, Rep. James Langdon Jr., a retired educator from Johnston County, chimed in to question supporting a method with mixed results.

We’ve reported data from a Vanderbilt University professor that tracks mixed results from a similar achievement school district program in Tennessee, although Bryan pointed out Thursday that North Carolina’s program is different in that it requires prospective charter operators to show a track record of success in North Carolina or in low-performing schools.

Bryan added Thursday that the legislation, which includes a program for schools to opt in to charter-like flexibility, would cost the state between $400,000 and $1 million to phase in, although that number does not count the local school funding that would be diverted to charter operators to run the low-performing schools.

Rep. Rosa Gill, a retired high school teacher from Wake County, was one of the 49 who voted against the bill Thursday, arguing that the state should focus instead on its own transformation efforts through the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

A DPI administrator told lawmakers in January that the state transformation office has seen results in the 79 districts where it had intervened, although the office was without sufficient funding for transformation in the 500-plus low performing schools in the state.

“Why are we investing in a program that has been proven to be less effective in improving performance than what we’re already doing?” said Gill.

More on this to come at Policy Watch.

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After heated debate, state House approves achievement school district bill