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N.C. General Assembly approves 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.

Lawmakers in the N.C. General Assembly have signed off on a controversial charter takeover bill affecting low-performing schools.

The state House voted 66-40 late Wednesday to approve the Senate’s version of House Bill 1080, a bill which will allow North Carolina officials to turn over management of five low-performing schools to for-profit, charter operators.

The bill was hotly contested by many public education advocates who called instead for greater investment in the state’s own school turnaround efforts, which had reported some progress in troubled schools to lawmakers earlier this year.

But supporters of the bill, mainly Republicans, said creating the so-called “achievement school district” would help to speed reforms in schools, many of them located in high-poverty locales, that have long struggled to perform.

The version that passed Wednesday stripped one key option that House members included in the bill. Previously, schools chosen for the achievement school district could opt to close, accept their place in the new district or adopt the “principal turnaround model,” wherein an administrator with a history of reforming low-performing schools assumes operations.

But the Senate version that passed both chambers this week removed the latter option, which seemed to have significant bipartisan backing in legislative committees earlier this year.

Democrats like Sen. Angela Bryant, who represents several counties in eastern North Carolina, said supporters of the bill were simply trying to “line the pockets” of charter groups.

Policy Watch has reported that lobbying for the achievement school district was financed by an Oregon businessman with a national network of charters, and it was also backed in recent weeks by an Oklahoma-based outfit with ties to the powerful, conservative group ALEC.

An achievement school district in neighboring Tennessee reported lackluster gains in recent years.

However, Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Republican from Wake who was the most outspoken supporter in his chamber, called the district an “innovative” solution multiple times.

“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,” Barefoot told a Senate committee last week.

Thursday’s House vote included some surprises, with powerful education Republicans such as Rep. Linda Johnson, co-chair of the House Education Committee, voting “no” while Charlotte Democrat Tricia Cotham, an outspoken public schools advocate, voted to support the achievement school district.

Cotham was one of five Democrats in the House to support the legislation Thursday, including Rep. Kelly Alexander, D-Mecklenburg; Rep. Elmer Floyd, D-Cumberland; Rep. Susi Hamilton, D-Brunswick, New Hanover; and Rep. Rodney Moore, D-Mecklenburg.

Gov. Pat McCrory is expected to support the legislation too.

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N.C. General Assembly approves charter takeover of low-performing schools