Experts warn of murky results from charter-driven schools

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina could hand over some of its lowest performing elementary schools to charter school operators in an effort to reverse dismal test scores in more than half the state's counties.

Similar aggressive reforms have taken hold in New Orleans and Tennessee, and states such as Mississippi, Arkansas and Georgia are considering prescribing charter management for their failing schools. But results have been mixed so far, with opponents saying researchers and educators have found little proof that the charter companies are the remedy.

North Carolina's proposal, which passed in the House earlier this month, would create a separate district for elementary schools that have fallen to the bottom 5 percent of the state's grading system for at least three consecutive years.

Thousands of North Carolina children attend schools the state has found nose-diving in both growth and achievement. Last year, 93 schools had less than 5 percent of students testing at grade level in more than one subject, according to North Carolina Department of Public Instruction data. The bill's supporters say rural locations and limited resources trap students at schools where they are doomed to fail.

The proposal would begin with a five-school, five-year pilot program, and a newly appointed Achievement School District superintendent would choose charter companies with successful histories to run the schools. That would allow them hiring and firing powers and exempt them from state requirements such as oversight and evaluations from local school boards.

"I am here to ring the alarm in this state that we have a crisis on our hands," said Rep. Cecil Brockman, a Democrat and bill sponsor. "We cannot afford to continue to do the same thing that we've always done, year after year, expecting a different result."

North Carolina's legislation closely resembles a Tennessee Achievement School District, which was established in 2012.

The experiment has so far fallen short of its transformative promise, said Joshua Glazer, the lead investigator in a four-year study of Tennessee's program. Student testing scores at the charter-operated schools have shown little to no comparative growth, said Glazer, an associated professor of education policy at George Washington University.

Glazer also noted that some Memphis communities, where the district is concentrated, have seen it as a threat to tradition and autonomy.

"There's a second narrative which many people hold and remain very committed to: that this is outsiders, white people coming in motivated by financial benefits to wrest political control away from Memphis," Glazer said. "They are highly skeptical the real motivation here is to help their kids. There's a long history here to support that interpretation."

Ron Zimmer, director of the Martin School of Public Policy at the University of Kentucky, published an impact report on the Tennessee program last year, which prompted some Tennessee policymakers to propose closing the district.

Zimmer said charter schools typically work when they are a choice, not a mandate.

"With a takeover, you're basically coming into a community and saying I know what should be done," Zimmer said. "That could cause some anxiety for that community."

Glazer and Zimmer did say the Tennessee plan has become an incentive for Memphis districts that want to avoid losing schools to the charter-operated district. Zimmer's team found significant improvement in math, science and reading scores in Tennessee's newly created innovation zones, which are lower performing schools that remained under local district control but were given greater autonomy and resources.

The movement's poster child, Louisiana's Recovery School District in New Orleans, grew test scores an unprecedented 8-15 percentile points district-wide in its first decade. The majority of New Orleans students now attend charter schools.

Douglas Harris, director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, said unique circumstances invite little guarantee those results can be duplicated elsewhere.

The schools, already mangled by segregation and political corruption, were decimated by Hurricane Katrina, leaving a vacuum for growth when most of the schools were added to the district in 2005.

"It worked because it was so bad to start with; there was nowhere to go but up," Harris said. "In part, if you do anything at all it's going to improve."

There was little room for community pushback to changes, because New Orleans essentially erased its traditional school district and started over.

In North Carolina, opponents say the plan would ignore the root causes of poor achievement that require additional funding: quality pre-kindergarten programs, teacher retention and socioeconomic-driven barriers like mental and physical health care. Nearly a quarter of North Carolina children live in poverty.

"We don't have a public education problem here in North Carolina, we've got a poverty problem," said Mark Jewell of the North Carolina Association of Educators. "It's not cheap to address it. It takes resources, materials and good buildings and not trailers that are leaking from the roof."

With opposition from both parties, the proposal now faces an uphill battle to gain full approval from both the Senate and the House before the end of the session.