Struggling schools could get flexibility reserved for charters

Local school districts may be able to make some of their struggling schools look more like charters under a policy the state Board of Education is considering.

The policy would lay out steps for implementing a law passed about five years ago, when the state was applying for a large federal grant called Race to the Top. The law describes changes the lowest-performing schools can make in order to improve. One of the options allows struggling schools to operate more like charters.

Charter schools are public schools, but do not have to adhere to certain rules and policies that govern traditional public schools. Charters, for example, can add days to the school calendar, and they do not have to pay employees according to the state salary schedule. Boards of directors independent of local school boards oversee charters.

Charters are not required to offer transportation or lunch, though it is unclear if that aspect of charter operations would extend to charters run by local school districts.

Several school districts, including Wake, have asked the state legislature for permission to operate their own charters but have not received it. Former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison was a proponent of district-run charter schools.

Alamance-Burlington schools, where former state Board Chairman Bill Harrison is now superintendent, is talking about using the law for struggling schools in that district.

Harrison, who was not at the state meeting, said in an interview that his district is in the early stages of considering such changes.

Funding one or two schools the way charters are funded “could open some opportunities for extended school days, extended calendar, extended employment for some of our people,” Harrison said.

He has maintained for years that struggling students need more time in school. The district may want to deviate from the state pay scale for teachers, he said.

“We’ve had conversations about what it’s going to take to attract and keep teachers at schools that have a high percentage of at-risk students,” Harrison said.

CMS got special legislative permission to launch year-round schedules and add time to the calendar at nine struggling schools that are part of Project LIFT, a public-private partnership focused on the West Charlotte High zone. Morrison and school board members have said they’d like the ability to do the same at other low-performing schools, but the state does not allow that.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said Wednesday that Alamance-Burlington was the only district to ask about using the law in such a way, but she would talk with other district superintendents about it later this week.

The proposed policy defines how a district would convert “continually low-performing” schools – those schools labeled low-performing in two out of three consecutive years – to schools resembling charters. Four strategies are available to address those schools, including closing them.

Most of the board’s questions were about allowing local school districts to make traditional public schools look like charters. Members said they needed more details before voting. No timetable has been set for a decision.

Board member Wayne McDevitt wondered how many schools would become eligible when the state moves to tougher criteria for determining A-F school letter grades. In all, 581 schools fall under the state’s new definition of “low-performing,” meaning that they received D or F grades and their students did not exceed expected growth.

Thirty-seven CMS schools are on that list, along with nine charter schools in Mecklenburg County. Three of the four Project LIFT schools that are on year-round schedules are still designated low performing. They started that schedule in 2013.

The designation, part of a new state law, is controversial. Several school boards, including Wake and Durham, have formally denounced it.

Under the proposed policy, districts would have to detail what waivers and exemptions they would need to advance student achievement, and indicate whether they would hire a charter management company to run the school. The school would remain under the control of the school district.

The State Board would have to approve plans and have the power to rescind approval.

“This provides an opportunity for our districts that they did not have before,” said board member Becky Taylor.

Observer staff writer Ann Doss Helms contributed.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner