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Plan for charter takeover of worst public schools crafted in secret

KIPP Academy, a national charter chain with a school in Charlotte, has taken over some low-performing public schools in Tennessee.
KIPP Academy, a national charter chain with a school in Charlotte, has taken over some low-performing public schools in Tennessee. KIPP Academy

N.C. Rep. Rob Bryan, a Mecklenburg Republican with a leadership role in education, has been working for weeks on a bill he hopes will eventually transform public schools.

It would start small, with a pilot Achievement District plan that would force five of North Carolina’s most persistently low-performing elementary schools to close or be taken over by charter operators. But Bryan hopes the trial will prove successful enough to inspire a bigger shift. He cites charter takeovers of district schools in New Orleans and Tennessee as models.

“I think the question is how long are kids allowed to be in failing schools,” he said Thursday.

If you haven’t heard of this plan, it’s because the bill hasn’t been introduced or discussed in any public forum. There’s nothing about it in public records yet.

Instead, Bryan has been crafting his proposal behind closed doors, talking to lawmakers, educators and advocates of his choosing. In a process that has become common, he plans to substitute his bill for another one introduced in February, circumventing a spring deadline for introducing new legislation.

“This has actually been in the works for a long time. It just hasn’t been on the public radar,” Bryan said.

Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of the Raleigh-based N.C. Policy Watch, calls that process a travesty. He agrees with Bryan on only two points: The schools in question need help, and Bryan’s proposal could reshape public education.

“This is a fundamental change in the way public schools operate,” Fitzsimon said Friday. “To put this together behind the scenes, in secret, in the last few weeks of the legislative session is an outrage.”

If the bill passes and money is included in this year’s budget, the five schools targeted for takeover would be selected by Nov. 15. The handoff could take place as early as the 2016-17 school year, though the state Board of Education could choose to defer some until 2017-18 and others to 2018-19.

Tennessee and New Orleans

Bryan, a lawyer who chairs the House education appropriations committee and serves on the K-12 education committee, says he’s been talking with Gov. Bill Haslam and education officials in Tennessee, where an Achievement School District was launched three years ago. Twenty-nine schools in Nashville and Memphis will be part of that district this year, up from six the first year.

The charter operators that take over low-performing schools in Tennessee are charged with moving them from the bottom 5 percent to the top 25 percent in about five years. The state recently released data for 2014-15, noting that students in the targeted schools “have earned double-digit gains in math and science proficiency and have grown faster than their state peers.”

Reading scores, however, declined, in the achievement schools and statewide.

Bryan called the latest numbers “on the whole, pretty impressive.”

But Tennessee education blogger Gary Rubenstein looked at the same data and calculated the percentile for the six schools that have been in the program for three years.

“Four ... are still in the bottom 5 percent while the other two have now ‘catapulted’ to the bottom 6 percent,” he concluded.

New Orleans has seen the nation’s biggest charter takeover. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, charter operators took over most of the schools from a district that had been among the nation’s most dysfunctional.

“New Orleans essentially erased its traditional school district and started over,” Tulane University Professor Douglas Harris writes in the fall 2015 edition of Education Next.

Harris, who is director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, reports that the switch led to significant gains in student performance over the past decade: “We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time.”

But that doesn’t mean other locations can expect to replicate those results, Harris said: “There are good reasons to think the conditions were especially ripe for success in New Orleans: There was nowhere to go but up.”

How it would work

Bryan says his plan has been repeatedly revised: “I think we’re on version 26 now.”

Lindsay Wagner, a reporter for N.C. Policy Watch, reported on Bryan’s plan last month in a political blog called The Progressive Pulse. Last week Bryan responded to the Observer’s calls for comment and provided a version he said is likely to be introduced soon.

That plan calls for the state Board of Education to hire an achievement school district superintendent, who will choose five elementary schools from a list based on 2015 data being released this fall. They must be among the 25 lowest-performing elementary schools and have failed to meet academic growth goals for the two prior years.

The newly hired official would be charged with choosing a sampling of urban and rural schools from around the state, with no more than one per school district. After conferring with local officials and holding a public hearing, that official would recommend five by Nov. 15, with a state Board of Education decision due Jan. 15.

By Feb. 15, the board would choose charter operators with “a record of results” or “a credible and specific plan” for improving low-performing schools. By the end of February, local districts would have to decide whether to close the targeted schools or transfer them to a charter operator.

The charter operator would be responsible for staffing the schools, with no requirement to keep existing teachers and administrators. The school board would remain responsible for the building and providing transportation.

Charter operators would get a five-year contract, with intensive monitoring to see whether they’re making a difference for the students. Lack of progress could lead to early termination of the agreement.

Bryan says he’s been working out his plan with Republican and Democratic lawmakers, as well as consulting with education groups.

Mary McCray, a retired teacher and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators leader who chairs the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, said recently that she was aware of the proposal and concerned about it. She did not respond to calls for comment Friday.

Fitzsimon said the complexity of the plan, as well as the challenge of evaluating results in Tennessee and New Orleans, make it essential to take time and have public discussion before voting.

“I think this has the potential to dramatically undermine public education,” he said, noting that a small pilot could easily be expanded. “I think this is a very, very scary road.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

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