N.C. Senate one vote away from approving 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.

North Carolina Senate lawmakers have moved one vote away from approving a controversial bill clearing the way for a charter takeover of a handful of low-performing schools.

House Bill 1080, the product of long negotiations over the fate of some of the state’s most chronically under-performing schools, is due for one final vote in the Senate today, before it returns to the House for a concurring vote. Afterwards, it would be forwarded to Gov. Pat McCrory’s office. The governor is expected to sign the bill.

The legislation will create a so-called, statewide “achievement school district” for five of the state’s lowest-performing schools, paving the way for state leaders to turn over management and staffing powers in the schools to for-profit charter operators.

In the House, the bill was predominantly led by Rep. Rob Bryan, a Charlotte-area Republican, but Policy Watch has reported that the legislation was backed by an Oregon businessman who runs a national charter network, which includes 10 schools in North Carolina. It was also pushed by an Oklahoma-based, conservative group with ties to ALEC.

Sen. Chad Barefoot, the Wake County Republican who is its most outspoken supporter in the Senate, called it an “innovative” solution for long-time struggling schools in a lengthy debate on the Senate floor Monday night.

But the bill was widely criticized by many Democrats and public school advocates, who argue that the method, which was met with lackluster results in other states like Tennessee, is an unproven technique for addressing struggling schools.

Sen. Angela Bryant, a Democrat representing several counties in eastern North Carolina, blasted supporters of the bill Monday, claiming they were trying to “line the pockets” of private operators lobbying for the legislation.

“You’re sending in, against their will, private companies to take over their schools,” Bryant said.

Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Democrat from Guilford County, said that while she supports intervention for low-performing schools, she does not back “outside” charter groups performing the work.

“Were our public schools given the same kind of support and flexibility (as charter schools), they would be able to do some of the same things,” said Robinson.

Opponents have also argued that increased funding in the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s school transformation office, which reported gains in schools to lawmakers earlier this year, would be a better investment.

Yet the reform had the support of many Republicans, and a handful of Democrats, who argued that the “status quo” in struggling schools was long overdue for a change.

Monday’s vote included several failed attempts by Democrats to exempt schools in certain districts—Guilford, Wake, Nash and Mecklenburg counties—following negative feedback from local leaders.

GOP backers of the bill also rebuffed Democrats’ attempt to offer a third choice for schools phased into the achievement school district. The bill currently allows for schools to either close or accept the achievement school district.

Democrats hoped to also allow schools to opt for the principal turnaround model, wherein an administrator with a history of reforming low-performing schools takes over operations. It’s a reform method that, at least in committee meetings earlier this year, seemed to have bipartisan support.

“At this time, we’re just not there,” said Barefoot. “But what we do agree is that the bill we have before us will help students in low-performing schools.”

Monday’s vote came as the N.C. General Assembly rushed to consider a smorgasbord of last-minute bills along with a tentative $22.34 billion budget compromise, with plans to adjourn this year’s short session in the coming days.

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