The North Carolina House of Representatives has approved a controversial bill that would allow for-profit charter school operators to takeover low-performing public schools. The bill passed by a vote of 60-49, whereupon it was sent to the state Senate.
The bill creates an "achievement school district" that would identify five of the state's lowest-performing elementary schools and hand them over to a charter school company for three years. If these companies reforms prove successful in improving these schools, they would be granted 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, an advocate of the bill. He argued that the state's public school system has failed its African American students. By contrast, charter schools appeared to be doing a better job in serving minority students.
According to the website NCCapitol, the bill would also allow school systems that turn a school over to a charter company to create its own I-Zones, groups of five schools that would be granted greater flexibility, similar to the kind enjoyed by charter schools, to make changes and implement reforms.
Supporters of the proposal believe that it can serve as an experiment. "I don't purport for this bill to be a cure-all, nor do I see it as a program that will revolutionize all of education in our state, but I do hope that we can help provide relief to some of our kids who need it the most and have been stuck in schools that are not meeting their needs," said Representative Rob Bryan. The bill has gained support from some state Democrats, the conventional opponents to charter school expansion.
It also has invited intense criticism. The N.C. Association of Educators is fighting it, and most state Democrats did in fact come out against it. According to Lisa Worf of WFAE, the bill passed along party lines with most Republicans voting for it and Democrats opposing it. "It's a risky experiment, a bad business model," says Rep. Ken Goodman, a Rockingham Democrat. He suggested that it might be wiser to give the districts the money to fix their own schools and hold them accountable for doing so.
The efforts against the bill have been countered by a coordinated promotional campaign. According to the News & Observer, Americans for Prosperity-North Carolina, a group associated with the industrialist Koch brothers, has publicly supported it, and a group called the Education Freedom Alliance that is working for the bill's passage ran a full-page ads urging readers to call their legislators about it.
Most of the bill's Democratic supporters said they were simply acting out of desperation. "If the majority of all children, if two-thirds, was failing in this state, it would be an outright crisis," said Representative Cecil Brockman, a co-sponsor of the legislation. "We would be using every tool in the toolbox to fix this problem." For them, the matter transcended party orthodoxy.