When Mecklenburg Rep. Rob Bryan first proposed an Achievement School District for North Carolina last summer, the concept was panned by public school advocates not only for what it did, but what it might lead to.
Bryan’s proposal called for a pilot program in which successful charter school operators would be given control of five of the state’s lowest performing public schools. Critics said it was a risky experiment that hadn’t been successful in other states. They also feared it was part of a longer-term Republican goal to privatize education in North Carolina.
Bryan has since improved the bill, with an important assist from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. HB 1080, which should get a vote on the House floor next week, surely won’t quiet public school advocates. But it demonstrates that Bryan is interested in helping all schools, not just giving new business to charters.
HB 1080 retains the core of Bryan’s original proposal. Five N.C. elementary schools would be chosen by the State Board of Education to be taken over by charter schools. Each would be operated on a five-year contract. Successful schools could get a three-year extension. Unsuccessful schools could have their contracts canceled early.
The proposal is modeled after achievement school districts in other states, including Tennessee, which after a slow start has shown some promising results.
A new wrinkle in Bryan’s bill: If a school district doesn’t want a low-performing school to be taken over by a charter, it can request that the school participate in a “principal turnaround model.” That option allows the district to hire a principal with a record of success, then give that principal a five-year contract and significant latitude in running the school.
A bigger wrinkle: If a district has a school chosen for ASD, that district can choose to participate in an “Innovation Zone” in which up to three schools can play by the same rules as charter schools (and with extra funding). That would give school districts the chance to try their own innovations – as charter schools can – without the handcuffs of some public school rules.
Bryan and a CMS spokesperson confirmed to the editorial board this week that the I-Zone concept was suggested by CMS Superintendent Ann Clark and Denise Watts, superintendent of CMS’s Project LIFT.
That’s important because public school advocates who are leery of the ASD concept can and should realize that the I-Zone provision in Bryan’s bill presents an opportunity. If school districts can use charter-like freedom to improve struggling schools, that benefits students, educators and public schools as a whole. An example: Districts could implement and evaluate smaller class sizes, a favorite reform of public school advocates.
Long ago, a perceived benefit of charter schools was that they could be a laboratory of sorts for public schools. Instead, they’ve become a competitor. An Achievement School District probably won’t change that dynamic, but it gives successful charters a chance to show if their methods work in struggling public schools. At the least, HB 1080 gives school districts the opportunity to try their own things with the principal turnaround and I-Zone models.
Bryan says it’s all about encouraging new approaches with the hope that at least some will work for our students. If you want better N.C. public schools, you should view his bill the same way.