Raleigh, N.C. — The Senate Education Committee has signed off on a measure creating an "achievement school district," which would take five low-performing public schools and turn over their operation to private education operators, most likely charter school companies.
"We're taking about a situation in the state that is so bad, where the results are so bad, how can you argue for doing the same thing?" Sen. Chad Barefoot told the committee Friday.
Under the measure, House Bill 1080, the state would identify the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools based on student growth, a measure of how much students learn between the beginning and end of the year.
An appointed superintendent would then help select five of those schools for inclusion in the school district after public meetings with local parents and school officials. The State Board of Education would have the final say on which schools were included, and a school district would have a choice between letting its school become part of the new statewide district or shutting it down.
Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash, said she didn't object to the creation of an achievement school district, but she objected to compelling local schools to participate.
"There is no way you can have success out of that level of force by government," Bryant said.
Committee members passed the bill on a voice vote, and it is now headed to the Senate floor.
Another feature of the bill would allow school districts that have one of their schools chosen for the achievement school district to experiment with different ways of running schools, too. The district could create an "innovation zone" that would have the same flexibility with regard to curriculum and staff salaries that is currently granted to charter schools.
"We're giving over to private companies our children, who are low-income, mostly minority," said Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford.
Barefoot objected to that characterization, saying that it would not just be private operators invited to run schools.
The legislative language in the bill would allow any "entity" that operates a school in the state to operate one of the five chosen schools. Although that would leave open the possibility of a private school operator or a public education entity, most likely it would be a company already operating a charter school within the state.
"This bill ... creates a new state bureaucracy by taking away local decision making," said Leanne Winner, a lobbyist for the North Carolina School Boards Association.
But advocates for the bill said that threat of a state takeover could spur schools to improve.
"That's where the accountability is," said Marcus Brandon, a former state representative who now heads CarolinaCAN, a nonprofit that advocates for school choice.
"This bill says we, as a state, will no longer let schools fail children who look like me for 20, 30, years," said Brandon, who is black.