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Senate committee approves controversial charter takeover of low-performing schools

Rep. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg, is a chief supporter of the bill.

Rep. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg, is a chief supporter of the bill.

With just days remaining in the N.C. General Assembly’s short session, leaders on the Senate Education Committee have given their approval to achievement school districts, a GOP-backed model of school reform that may clear for-profit charter takeovers of low-performing schools.

Committee Chair Jerry Tillman, a Republican who supports the measure, declared the “ayes” to have won the vote Friday, although to some listeners, the voice vote appeared to be evenly split or favoring the opposition.

House Bill 1080, the long-gestating work of Rep. Rob Bryan, a Republican from Mecklenburg County, will allow state leaders to create a pilot program pulling five chronically low-performing schools into one statewide district. From there, the state could opt to hand over control of the schools, including hiring and firing powers, to for-profit charter operators.

Members in the N.C. House approved the bill after a heated debate this month, and Friday’s vote would seem to clear the way for the legislation’s advance to the Senate floor in the session’s final days.

It’s a reform that’s been attempted in other states like Louisiana, Michigan and Tennessee to great controversy, although the results have been a disappointment, according to at least one Vanderbilt University study. 

As Policy Watch has reported, support for the bill was financed by a wealthy Oregon businessman who runs a network of charters, and has been promoted as a salve for long-time struggling schools by ALEC-affiliated groups like the Education Freedom Alliance out of Oklahoma.

Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake County Republican who defended the legislation Friday, called achievement school districts an “innovative solution” to chronically, low-performing schools.

“The bar is so low in these schools, anything that makes an impact that’s considered by this state has to be considered a good thing,” said Barefoot.

But several Democrats and public education advocates who spoke Friday decried the bill as advancing an unproven reform.

“We would ask that you not send North Carolina down this road with an experiment which has been shown to not be effective in other states,” said Leanne Winner, director of governmental relations for the N.C. School Boards Association, a statewide group that represents local boards of education.

Barefoot, however, countered multiple times that North Carolina’s version of achievement school districts will differ from other states such as Tennessee. When pressed on the claim, Barefoot said other states “flood” schools in the achievement school district with money to middling results.

North Carolina, Barefoot said, will maintain the current spending allocations for the schools selected in the districts. The funding will simply be shuttled to charter school managers to run the school. Advocates like Tillman said charter operators will run the schools more successfully.

“They will make great growth,” declared Tillman. “That’s a fact.”

But Sen. Angela Bryant, a Democrat representing five counties in eastern North Carolina, a region with a large share of struggling schools, said forcing local schools to turn over operations to outside groups will surely be met with “negative energy” by residents affected by the pilot program.

“The element of coercion is so pernicious and harmful at multiple levels that there is no way that you can have success out of that level of force by government,” said Bryant.

Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Democrat from Guilford County, also blasted the legislation. “We’re giving over, to private companies, children who are low-income, mostly minority.”

Opponents of the bill have also pointed out that state-run turnaround efforts in the school, through the Department of Public Instruction’s Office of District and School Transformation, yielded improving dropout rates. Additionally, the office says, more than 80 percent of the schools where it intervened with professional development and additional resources were lifted from the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state.

Yet, due to limited funding, the office claimed this year to have only been able to step in to 79 of the nearly 600 low-performing schools in the state.

We’ll continue to follow this legislation as it advances in the Senate.

 

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Senate committee approves controversial charter takeover of low-performing schools