In recent years, cities such as Detroit and New Orleans, as well as the state of Tennessee, have moved toward replacing some public schools with privately run charters. Last Thursday, the North Carolina House took the first steps in that direction—even though critics say there's considerable evidence that these plans haven't worked elsewhere and won't work here, either.
House Bill 1080 cleared the House on a 60–49 vote, with three Democrats voting yes and a dozen Republicans voting no. The bill would place five low-achieving elementary schools in what's called an Achievement School District. The superintendent of the ASD, appointed by the State Board of Education, would then recommend a school-district operator to the board. This operator could be either nonprofit or for-profit; it just can't be the Department of Public Instruction. Teachers at these schools would then have to reapply to get their jobs back.
Marcus Brandon, a former House member who's now the executive director of the pro-reform group CarolinaCAN, says he supports HB 1080 because "there's around six hundred [underperforming] schools. There's no way DPI can help all of these schools." (Last year's budget loosened the definition of a "low-performing school," boosting the total to 581 from 348.)
Reformers argue that ASDs can be a particular boon to African-American students. Brandon and Representative Cecil Brockman, one of three Democrats to vote yes, point out that African-Americans are suffering the most in the current system.
"The status quo means two-thirds of people who look like me are failing," says Brockman. "If that was happening to white kids, we would do everything we could to help them."
Something needs to be done, they say.
The theory underpinning the reform movement is that charter operators can run schools more effectively and with greater flexibility than the government—for example, they can fire bad teachers more easily than can traditional schools.
But not everyone is on board. Kris Nordstrom, a former education policy analyst for the General Assembly, said in a letter to legislators last week that the bill "expands opportunities for corruption" and has "inadequate program evaluation."
"Even under the best conditions, there is no evidence that ASDs work," Nordstrom wrote. "[HB 1080] falls short of providing the best conditions."
Nordstrom's case rests with North Carolina's western neighbor. In 2012, Tennessee started an ASD program using federal Race to the Top funds. "The goal was to move schools from the bottom five percent to the top twenty-five percent," says Gary Rubinstein, a math teacher and education blogger. "They actually used the word 'catapult.' Now, five of the six original schools are in the bottom two and a half percent, and the other one that was supposed to break the twenty-five-percent barrier in four years is in the bottom sixth percentile."
Brandon brushes off Rubinstein's numbers. Schools in the Tennessee ASD "have seen double-digit gains in math and science," he says. (Rubinstein counters that those annual gains were "wiped out" the following year.)
Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, says the success of charters is illusory. They merely look attractive, she says, because "the so-called high-performing charter schools choose their students carefully. What never works is for charter operators to take over a neighborhood school and turn it around."
In this case, she says, doing nothing would be better than enacting HB 1080.
"Doing nothing is not good, but doing something that's guaranteed to fail is worse," she says. "It's like if someone holds a knife to your back and says, 'Walk the plank,' staying where you are is a better idea, because at least then you're still alive."
Nordstrom says HB 1080 is worse than Tenessee's law in at least one way: Tennessee budgeted almost $50 million over four years for its ASD schools; HB 1080 provides no additional funding, implying that lawmakers think public schools will magically improve if turned into charters.
This faith in charters seems especially perplexing when you consider that North Carolina already has a successful turnaround model. According to a DPI report, the District and School Transformation program has brought 83 percent of the schools it worked with between 2010 and 2014 out of the bottom 5 percent of North Carolina schools. Despite that success, the budget the Senate passed last week calls for a $2.19 million cut to the DPI. Nordstrom says this turnaround program would "likely take the brunt of the Senate cuts," as it isn't required by law.
This article appeared in print with the headline "False Promises"