A charter school plan worth considering

The Observer editorial board

A seventh-grader at a Memphis Achievement District school.
A seventh-grader at a Memphis Achievement District school. THE NEW YORK TIMES

It’s tempting to view a new Republican charter school initiative in the context of previous Republican education initiatives, which do little to help N.C. public schools or their students.

But this latest proposal, crafted by Mecklenburg Rep. Rob Bryan, deserves at least a second look.

Bryan’s bill, which is currently under construction, would force five of the state’s lowest-performing elementary schools to close or be taken over by charter school operators with “a record of results” or a “specific and credible plan” for improving the schools.

The concept is modeled after efforts in New Orleans and Tennessee, where results have been mixed but encouraging.

We’re troubled that Bryan will introduce the proposal by attaching it to an existing bill, as lawmakers of both parties like to do after missing the General Assembly’s spring deadline for new bills. That deadline exists for a reason – so that bills can get a full public hearing, not a last-minute rush to passage.

Bryan, at least, has publicly posted links to his proposals so that interested parties can get a good look. He should introduce the bill quickly, so that there’s time for adequate debate, too.

Already, there’s opposition. “I think this has the potential to dramatically undermine public education,” Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of N.C. Policy Watch, told the Observer’s Ann Doss Helms. “I think this is a very, very scary road.”

The reality is we’re already on a scary road. Public schools are struggling. Advocates and administrators are desperately searching for ways to improve the worst of them. That’s why public school supporters welcomed Project LIFT, an unorthodox public-private partnership that’s produced some promising results in Mecklenburg County. We should also be open to other innovations, so long as they are thoughtful and offer accountability.

Bryan’s plan does, at least so far. Unlike the New Orleans and Tennessee programs, it would be implemented slowly, starting with the five schools, which would be monitored by a superintendent selected by the N.C. Board of education.

If, at the end of five years, an individual school’s measurable academic growth exceeds that of similar public schools, it would be granted a contract extension. If a school is performing poorly, the contract can be terminated as early as three years from the start date.

It is, Byran insists, a pilot program. If it doesn’t work, it wouldn’t be expanded. The bill, however, could make that more clear and measurable for the program as a whole.

But if the venture does work, it shouldn’t matter who came up with the idea. Yes, Republicans in Raleigh have given North Carolinians very little reason to trust that they want public schools to succeed. Lawmakers have underfunded K-12 schools. They’ve allowed charters to operate with too little transparency and accountability.

But charter schools, at their best, have long been thought of as incubators for new ideas and approaches to education. Bryan’s proposal, as currently written, would give those innovations a chance to succeed in schools that need help the most. For the students who walk through those doors, it’s well worth a try.