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State Board of Education questions charter takeovers

Rep.-Bryan-Achievement-Scho

Faced with stiff deadlines in forcing charter takeovers of a few low-performing schools next year, members of the North Carolina State Board of Education on Wednesday described the reform as a somewhat avant-garde approach.

“This is truly an edgy idea,” said board member Olivia Holmes Oxendine. “I don’t say that in a pejorative way. It’s mind-boggling really.”

The comments came as state staff explained plans for the “achievement school districts,” which could turn over control of five low-performing elementary schools to for-profit charter operators.

The contentious measure, much decried by many public school advocates, passed during the legislature’s short session this year. State officials are required to choose a superintendent to helm the district and tap qualifying schools in early 2017.

Some state board members and their advisors on Wednesday seemed alarmed by the legislative mandate; others were curious or even perturbed.

“Its negative impact could virtually set us back to I don’t know when,” said Christine Fitch, a state advisor representing local boards of education. “It’s very scary.”

Others, such as state Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican school-choice proponent who sits on the State Board of Education, described the reform as a “calculated risk” for chronically under-performing schools.

“Year over year, for decades, students failing is not acceptable,” said Forest.

In the coming months, Forest is expected to lead an advisory committee which will choose a superintendent for the achievement school district.

Similar reform efforts received mixed reviews in other states such as Tennessee and Louisiana, but supporters, mostly Republicans and a handful of Democrats, described the new district as an “innovative” approach to a long-running problem.

Board members who spoke Wednesday questioned provisions of the new law requiring local school boards maintain transportation and infrastructure services even after charter operators take over.

They also questioned whether the charter operators would have the power to adjust the bell schedule in schools, pointing out some districts have heeded studies showing later school opening may help improve student performance, something that remained unclear after Wednesday’s meeting.

State staff told board members that chosen schools could opt to close or enter the achievement school district for a five-year period, with the option of an additional three-year term. No more than one school per district can be tapped.

Fitch told state board members Wednesday that she believes the reform will only place a “stigma” on the qualifying schools.

N.C. Superintendent of Public Schools June Atkinson, meanwhile, urged board members to consider the “root causes” of poor student performance too, such as poverty or a lack of early childhood education.

Board Chairman Bill Cobey pointed out that the achievement school district reform is a legislative requirement.

“No matter what the feelings are on either side, it’s our job to do it so it works,” said Cobey.

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