Raleigh, N.C. — The state would call on charter school operators to take over low-performing schools under a bill that cleared the state House on a 60-49 vote Thursday.
House Bill 1080 creates an "achievement school district," which would identify five of the state's lowest-performing elementary schools. Those schools would be run by a charter school company for three years with an eye toward turning around academic performance. Successful efforts could earn a three-year extension.
"We cannot afford to do the same thing we've done for year after year expecting a different result," said Rep. Cecil Brockman, D-Guilford, advocating for the bill. He pointed to statistics that showed public schools were failing two-thirds of African American students and that charters appeared to be doing a better job in some cases of serving minority students.
Brockman took note of opposition that has come from teachers groups and school districts, who fear that achievement school districts would drain funding from traditional public schools.
House bill seeks new management for failing NC schools "This bill is not about teachers, it's not about the principals, it's not about the (local education agencies). So, if they don't like it, good," he said. "Who cares about the teachers? We should care about the kids."
That broadside drew a rebuke from Rep. Marvin Lucas, D-Cumberland, a former educator who said that the state has not given teachers the support they need to be successful.
"I'm hoping I misunderstood your statement," Lucas said. "Did I understand you to say we should not care about teachers?"
Brockman said he was being "provocative" to make a point: "My larger point was we should care more about our kids than our teachers."
As the conflict between Brockman and Lucas and the final voted showed, clashes over the bill did not line up along party lines.
In addition to creating a statewide, five-school district over the next few years, the bill would also allow school systems who turn a school over to the achievement school district to create its own I-Zones, groups of five schools that would be given greater flexibility to make improvements and make changes similar to what charter schools are allowed to do.
Supporters of the bill, including sponsor Rep. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg, argued that the measure was an experiment that could be cut off if it doesn't work. Critics argued that the experiment is unlikely to yield the desired results.
"I do not think this program will do what we want it to do," said Rep. James Langdon, R-Johnston, himself a former educator. "There are too many variables that can't be fixed."
Achievement school districts have been tried in states such as Tennessee and Nevada and city systems such as New Orleans. While backers of the bill pointed to the experience of the New Orleans effort on the House floor, critics say its successes are overstated.
"For me, I don't believe this is the solution," said Rep. Ken Goodman, D-Richmond.
Low-performing schools, Goodman said, tend to be found in areas of high poverty, something the bill wouldn't fix.
"I challenge anybody in here to find a low-performing school that has an affluent population," he said.
But backers insist the state can't ignore the problems in schools that consistently perform the worst in the state.
Rep. Scott Stone, R-Mecklenburg, pointed out that an achievement school district wouldn't have a statewide reach but only reach five of the 50 lowest-performing schools.
"We know what we're doing in those five schools isn't working," Stone said.
House Bill 1080 will now go to the Senate.