Raleigh, N.C. — A measure that could allow private charter school companies to take over some low-performing North Carolina public schools cleared a divided House Education Committee on Wednesday.
The 18-11 vote, which crossed party lines, sends House Bill 1080 to the House floor.
The bill would create various pilot projects aimed at turning around schools where students consistently show little academic improvement and post low scores on state tests.
"Every year a kid stays in one of these failing schools is a year lost. You can't get them back," said bill sponsor Rep. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg.
The most controversial aspect of the proposal calls for the State Board of Education to select five schools across North Carolina to put in a so-called "Achievement School District," or ASD, and hire entities to run the schools. Critics say that could allow for-profit charter firms a chance to manage struggling schools, and they point to mixed results from a similar experiment in Tennessee.
"The guardrail we put on this is that you've got to be a successful operation," Bryan said, noting that the bill puts prerequisites on any group applying to manage a school in the ASD.
The operators of the school would have five years to show improved student performance, and if the results don't exceed those of schools not in the program, the group's contract would be canceled.
If a local school board doesn't want to allow a selected school to become part of the ASD, it must close the school down or appeal to the state board to allow the school to take part in a separate pilot program in which a "turnaround principal" would be put in charge of the school and given a five-year contract to improve performance.
The third pilot program would allow a local school board to lump three struggling schools into a so-called "Innovation Zone" where they would be given more flexibility from state regulations, similar to the freedom afforded to public charter schools.
"A vote for this piece of legislation is in no way a vote against traditional public schools," said Rep. John Bradford, R-Mecklenburg, another bill sponsor, noting that the state needs to apply the same push to improve schools as it does to students who struggle academically.
A few teachers who shouted "Shame" at lawmakers shortly before the vote were escorted from the committee room.
One of them, Jessica Benton, a Wake County teacher, called the ASD "the beginning of a huge division" in oversight of public schools.
"I'm wondering why we would seek to divide our efforts between two competing systems when our most struggling schools are at stake," Benton said.
Mark Jewell, a vice president with the North Carolina Association of Educators, said the ASD concept lacks accountability and adds a layer of bureaucracy to the state's education system. He said the state should continue to focus on reform efforts by the state Department of Public Instruction, which he said have led to improvements at other schools.
But Rep. Cecil Brockman, D-Guilford, and former Rep. Marcus Brandon spoke in favor of the proposal, saying too many black students are trapped in failing schools and need a chance to improve.
"Just because we have accountability measures doesn't mean people are being held accountable," Brandon said, noting a school near his Charlotte home has performed poorly for years with no change.
"If people don't like Achievement School Districts, the best part of this bill is you can do everything you can not to become (part of) one," he said.