Charlotte company behind a promising schools idea that's become an embarrassment

An Achievement School District classroom in Tennessee, a model for North Carolina's Innovative School District.
An Achievement School District classroom in Tennessee, a model for North Carolina's Innovative School District. Observer file photo

Two years ago, when the concept of an Achievement School District was introduced in North Carolina, we thought it was a promising idea. The concept, outlined in a 2016 bill, called for a pilot program in which successful charter school operators would run a handful of the state’s most struggling schools. Progressives didn’t like it, in part because they thought it threatened traditional public school funding, and in part because they didn’t trust any ideas that came from Republicans. In this case, that Republican was then-state representative Rob Bryan of Charlotte.

The achievement school district had experienced encouraging results in Tennessee after a slow start, however, and it didn’t much matter to us who proposed the concept here. The experiment was small in scope and worth a try to see if charter-like freedom could help traditional public schools. Lawmakers agreed, passing a bill that created North Carolina's Innovative School District.

Now, that promising concept has turned slimy.

ISD officials have struggled to find a qualified company to operate the one school initially chosen for takeover — Southside Ashpole Elementary in Robeson County. The operator that's finally gotten the nod — Charlotte-based Achievement for All Children (AAC) — looks bad in every important way. AAC is only a year old and doesn't have the long history of success that ISD's creators had envisioned. Neither does a company that AAC chose as an operating partner, TeamCFA, which has a mixed record of student achievement in 13 N.C. Charter schools. That deficiency appears to violate the 2016 law that requires the operator or its partners to have a record of improving persistently low-performing schools and students.

An ISD-commissioned evaluator, SchoolWorks, also found that AAC was deficient in seven of 11 operational criteria, including startup planning, goals and "mission and vision." In addition, SchoolWorks was alarmingly skeptical about AAC's funding model.

But that may not be the worst part. AAC's operating partner, TeamCFA, was founded by Oregon's John Bryan, who contributed generously to N.C. political campaigns and has taken credit for getting the ISD law passed. On AAC's board is Rob Bryan, the law's author.

At the least, it’s horrible optics. At worst, it appears that North Carolina may have been scammed.

The state school board approved AAC in a somewhat contentious 7-4 vote this month, but as part of that approval, AAC must submit a response to SchoolWorks' concerns. ISD superintendent Eric Hall told the Observer editorial board Friday he expected that response by day's end. Hall said he'll review it and report to the state school board. He stressed that the ISD has "significant accountability" in place.

Hall and the board should demonstrate that. Hiring AAC is, simply, an embarrassment, and any school board member voting to move forward with the company is doing a disservice not only to the students of Southside Ashpole, but to the Innovative School District overall.

The ISD concept remains a good one, but for it to succeed, it will need buy-in from reluctant public school officials — and a very reluctant public — across the state. Instead, the rollout has become one more affirmation for progressives that Republicans don’t really have the interests of public school children at heart. Hall and the state school board can signal that’s not the case by rejecting AAC. It's time to start over.