State takeover districts comprise low-performing schools that are seized from local education administrators (LEAs) and taken over by the state. The state appoints a superintendent to run the Innovative School District and the ISD superintendent selects a charter school operator to run each school. The schools are not necessarily geographically close but have been given failing grades by their state largely based student test scores.
North Carolina began used issuing letter grades to schools in 2014 largely based on student test scores. These student scores and school letter grades are used to determine which schools are low-performing. In the 2016 legislative session, lawmakers passed a new measure, HB 1080, officially creating a state takeover district for the 2018-19 school year. Originally called the Achievement School District, it was renamed the Innovative School District by the legislature in the 2017 budget, perhaps to distance it from Tennessee’s unraveling ASD program on which the plan was based.
Lt. Governor Dan Forest chaired the committee, whose members he appointed, that chose the district’s superintendent, Dr. Eric Hall. The ISD superintendent is responsible for selecting the schools’ operators for State Board of Education (SBE) approval. ISD operators may be for-profit companies and must have a proven record of turning around low-performing schools or a “substantial number of low- performing students” in NC, or a “a credible and specific plan for dramatically improving student achievement in a low-performing school” as well as either operating in the state or being a “contractual affiliate” of an NC charter operator. On September 7, 2017, the qualifying schools were identified based on the following criteria:
- Schools that were all or part of grade K-5 that earned an overall school performance score in the lowest five percent (5%) of all schools in the state in the prior school year and
- Did not exceed growth in at least one of the prior three school years and did not meet growth in at least one of the prior three school years and
- Did not adopt one of the established reform models in the immediate prior school year.
Southside Ashpole Elementary School Selected for 2018-19 School Year
On November 2, 2017, the State Board of Education selected only one school for the Innovative School District for the 2018-19 school year: Southside Ashpole Elementary School, Rowland, NC.
This school is a part of the Robeson County School System. The local community in Robeson County was very upset about this decision and held many community meetings to show their disagreement with this school takeover. According to state statute, once selected for takeover, Robeson County School Board either could close the school or join the ISD. On January 9, 2018, the Public Schools of Robeson County School Board approved the transfer of Southside Ashpole Elementary in Rowland, NC into the Innovative School District beginning in the 2018-19 school year.
School Works, a third-party evaluation firm contracted by the ISD, is tasked with evaluating any operator applications submitted and will report to the ISD Superintendent on their findings. The application process for being an operator of an Innovative School District is here. Applicants presented their proposed plans to improve student and school outcomes to the NCISD Superintendent. NCISD received applications from The Romaine Group and Achievement for All Children. Public school advocates note neither entity has a strong, proven performance history. The Romaine Group, a for-profit Michigan based organization manages eight schools in Maryland and one in NC. The NC school, Capitol Encore Academy in Fayetteville, is a K-8 charter that earned a ‘D’ according to 2016-17 school report cards. Achievement for All Children is a new nonprofit, created by supporters of the school choice movement including a wealthy donor who helped support the bill that resulted in the creation of an Innovative School District. Many have questioned applicants’ ties to the controversial bill and pointed out that they stand to benefit financially from being chosen as operators.
SchoolWorks evaluated the operator applications and found that at the time of assessment, neither entity met the requisites established by the ISD guidelines. According to press release issued on February 1, 2018: “Based on the reports received from SchoolWorks, at this time neither entity met the high expectations imposed by the ISD. The ISD now plans to convene negotiations with both entities to gain additional insight on their respective capabilities and approaches to improving student achievement at Southside Ashpole.” The ISD Superintendent asked for an additional 60 days to decide on an operator. Critics and supporters of the ISD model expressed concern over the small number of applicants. Once the State Board approves the Innovative School operator they will be given a 5-year contract.
Concerns about NC’s ISD
Where takeover districts have been implemented, there is no evidence that they offer high-quality educational alternatives to children from low-income families.
- According to Dr. Mercedes Schneider, a New Orleans educator, “Just over 6 percent of high school seniors in the Recovery School District scored high enough in English and Math to qualify for admission into a Louisiana four-year college or university straight out of high school. Five of their 16 high schools produced not a single student who met these requirements.”
- From Chris Barbic, the Texas charter school operator named superintendent of the Tennessee Achievement School District in 2012, “As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results. I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.” Barbic resigned at the end of 2015.
- A Vanderbilt University study of Tennessee’s ASD found “that the vast majority of teachers exited schools once they came under the auspices of the ASD. Therefore, the ASD faced a significant need to hire new teachers in their first year. Among the new hires, nearly a third were novice teachers.”
- The following year, Vanderbilt researchers found that the ASD did not had a marginal effect on student test scores, while district-led turnaround efforts had “moderate to large positive effects in Reading and Math.”
- Tulane University Prof. J. Celeste Lay warned the state of Georgia not to model its school takeover after New Orleans: “Like other businesses, schools operating within market models must also turn a profit. The principal at my nearby charter school makes over $300,000 per year, a 246 percent increase from her salary before the school was chartered. For-profit management companies charge schools 15-20 percent of school revenue. Taxpayer dollars go into hefty administrator salaries and corporate profits instead of reducing class sizes, upgrading facilities, or recruiting and maintaining high-quality teachers.”
- An Education Week commentary concluded that “a growing body of independent investigations shows that the preferred strategies of closing and chartering schools in takeover districts open the public treasury to fraud, waste, and abuse. … Whether the arrangement is called a portfolio district, a recovery district, or, most egregious, an ‘opportunity’ or ‘achievement’ district, the goal of these policies is the same: the transfer of local, public funds and decision-making to non-accountable, often remote- or chain-charter operators.”
- A Center for Popular Democracy comprehensive review of existing state takeover districts found: “The rapid proliferation of the takeover district as an educational panacea is alarming. There is little clear evidence that takeover districts achieve their stated goals of radically improving performance at failing schools. At the same time, children, particularly students of color and those with special needs, face greater risk of discriminatory discipline and enrollment practices in takeover districts. Furthermore, hastily created districts with opaque governance structures breed fraud and mismanagement.”
- In August 2016, Tennessee’s state auditor found massive problems with the fiscal management of its ASD. The Times Free Press reportsthat analysts found “seven key areas where ASD did not establish processes over key human resources and payroll functions, including segregating duties; maintaining personnel files; verifying education credentials; documenting time and attendance; completing performance reviews; documenting approvals of bonuses and pay raises; and exiting employees.”
- In 2017, Tennessee’s legislature seriously curtailed the purview of the ASD, taking away the district’s ability to start new schools and restricting its authority to take over struggling schools. The state also cut its leadership team and consolidated management offices. Chalkbeat reports: “Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says the state will no longer default to the Achievement School District when considering how to help Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools. … Tennessee will lean on more local district-led turnaround initiatives.”
- The structure of NC’s ISD, as detailed in the legislation itself, offers no more safeguards than the others discussed. Former NCGA analyst Kris Nordstrom wroteof the aforementioned TN report, “The researchers note, ‘the turnaround space for charters (in an ASD) is indisputably different from their usual circumstances, and as such calls for a very different type of schooling operations.’ The Tennessee program failed despite relying upon private charter operators with ‘a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge and experience.’ North Carolina’s ASD program is similarly set up for failure. Despite the assurances of the bill sponsors, there are no ‘guardrails’ to ensure success.”
- Low-performing schools in North Carolina are making significant progress, according to a recent study on the existing program designed to improve low-performing schools known as Turning around North Carolina’s Lowest-Achieving Schools (TALAS) found that: “TALAS made significant investments in professional development, comprehensive needs assessments, school improvement planning, and instructional and leadership coaching in low-performing schools. These investments have paid off in improved outcomes for students. The primary threat to this progress is the high level of staff turnover that occurs in these schools and the increased level of spending on professional development that is required for new staff members each year. ASDs would make the turnover problem in low-performing schools even worse.”
- Since the lowest achieving schools have almost exclusively high-poverty student populationsand come from high-poverty districts, these reforms are doomed to fail. Telling cash-strapped districts to reform schools by adding administrative layers (like an innovation zone office) or mandating higher pay for staff (as in the principal turnaround model) with no funding beyond local “discretionary funds” is meaningless. Turning around our lowest achieving schools cannot happen without a significant commitment of resources and time.
- Students at low-performing schools deserve reforms that ensure better academic and social outcomes. Giving the state control of local public schools will introduce more uncertainty and less stability to our most vulnerable elementary schools without guaranteeing their students’ success
During spring 2016 meetings of the House ASD Select Committee, Dr. Gary Henry of Vanderbilt University presented research demonstrating TN’s ASD’s lack of effect on student outcomes. He also discussed a policy brief he wrote with colleagues who established that TN’s other model for turning around schools, a district-led effort called iZone, was more successful than the state’s ASD. An NC School Boards Association representative and another researcher made similar points regarding the difficulties charter school operators have when they try to run neighborhood schools, which is not what charter schools are designed to accomplish. Despite these warnings, the ASD measure was passed without additional accountability or safeguards.
North Carolina chose to establish a model that has proven unsuccessful, unaccountable, and inequitable. Most educators believe this approach could actually be harmful to some vulnerable students. The state is taking over struggling schools without providing accountability to the local community even though takeover districts offer no guarantee of improved student outcomes. Turning low-performing schools around is an urgent and worthy goal, but ISDs have not shown success for all children. There is no reason to believe that taking schools over and then asking districts with persistently underperforming schools to match any possible state funding for Innovation Zone programs will perform better.
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last edited on March 19, 2018