Don’t dismiss a promising schools idea

The Observer editorial board

Achievement District Superintendent Malika Anderson with Tennessee students.
Achievement District Superintendent Malika Anderson with Tennessee students. Courtesy of Tenn. Achievement School District

Two truths about education we should know by now:

1) In North Carolina, as in much of the country, we haven’t come up with an answer yet for the schools that struggle most. We’ve invested resources in them. We’ve tried innovative programs and ventures. Some of it has helped. None of it has been a solution.

2) There is no one solution. Fixing schools will take being open to new and innovative puzzle pieces, even some that make people uncomfortable.

An N.C. House Select Committee will talk Wednesday about one of those possibilities, a controversial “Achievement District” measure that could result in a handful of the state’s lowest performing schools being taken over by successful charter school operators.

The plan was originally introduced by Mecklenburg Rep. Rob Bryan last summer. It wasn’t ready for prime time then, so Bryan is bringing the concept back for discussion.

Bryan’s proposal is modeled after initiatives in Tennessee and New Orleans, where results have been mixed. Unlike either of those plans, Bryan has advocated starting slow, with the state taking over only five of the worst-performing schools.

There’s been significant pushback on the plan, however – some of it valid, some of it a knee-jerk response to anything that involves charter schools or Republicans.

The biggest objection: Critics say the idea simply doesn’t work, and they point to a December study from Vanderbilt University that showed little overall improvement in the first three years of Tennessee’s ASD schools.

But those same researchers cited improvement in math and science scores at the ASD schools (improvement that arrived in the most recent batch of test scores, by the way). The study also noted that reforms generally take 3-5 years to take hold. In other words: It’s too early to draw conclusions.

Critics also are wary of Bryan’s proposal because Bryan is a Republican. We get the skepticism. N.C. Republicans have chronically underfunded public schools while encouraging charter schools to flourish without proper transparency and accountability. It’s not far-fetched to see Bryan’s plan as another way to deemphasize public schools.

Bryan’s bill could calm at least some of those fears if it spells out timetables and milestones that must be reached before the ASD program is expanded. That would prevent charter-happy lawmakers from growing the idea prematurely.

Perhaps the most legitimate concern about Bryan’s proposal is the disruptive impact it could have on the communities where struggling schools are located. Such communities already lack trust in CMS after school closures in 2010. Some parents also are tired of feeling like their schools are a petri dish for educational experiments.

Bryan told the Observer editorial board Monday that he wants to get more buy-in from communities and school districts. To that end, his proposal might include an alternative option for districts to replace the principal at a struggling school with one that has expanded charter-like flexibility in hiring and firing personnel.

It’s an unorthodox idea, yes. But orthodox isn’t working, at least not by itself, for some of our schools. We should be open to other possibilities, regardless of who comes up with them.