3 things N.C. can do for schools: Explore a controversial pilot program

The Observer editorial board

The legislative short session, which begins Monday, gives lawmakers a new chance to strengthen schools. The Observer editorial board offers three items that should be on their checklists. Our third:

Consider dueling pilot programs

Lawmakers are poised to take up a controversial proposal that would let successful N.C. charter schools run a handful of the state’s lowest performing public schools.

The plan comes from Mecklenburg Rep. Rob Bryan, and it’s modeled largely after Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which began operating in 2012. Bryan’s proposal would be a pilot program, beginning with probably five public schools across the state run by charter operators over a multi-year stretch.

Public school advocates don’t like the plan. Some, including researchers who should know better, say the Tennessee ASD has failed. That’s far from true. After a rocky start, the most recent batch of test scores shows promising improvement, with other researchers saying reforms usually take 3-5 years to take hold, anyway.

Still, public school advocates believe Bryan’s proposal is part of an attempt to privatize public schools, and they prefer reform that involves reducing N.C. class sizes – ideally to about 16 students or less. Classes that size have produced some good results from students, but researchers are iffy on whether the successes are large enough to justify the high cost.

At this point, as with ASD programs, there’s no definitive research that can steer lawmakers toward a confident decision. Our recommendation: Try each. In every district with an Achievement District school, one public school can operate with smaller class sizes. Measure the results – and the costs – after five years.

Experimentation is hard, and it’s uncomfortable. But fixing our schools will take both resources and a willingness to try new things, no matter where those ideas originate.

The first item on the checklist: Real raises for educators.

The second item on the checklist: Revisit an important teacher perk