Putting ideology over evidence won’t help struggling students


By Chris Fitzsimon - N.C. Policy Watch



Legislative leaders say they care about helping struggling schools in North Carolina and the students who attend them—but they don’t act much like they do.

Imagine going to the doctor for an ear infection and the doctor tells you that she’s going to prescribe a drug that hasn’t worked very well in treating other patients with similar infections.

That in essence is what the General Assembly did this session by approving legislation to put five low-performing schools in something called an achievement school district (ASD) that may be run by an out of state for profit charter school company.

It is not a promising new idea or one with a proven track record of success. It is a remedy that has failed in other states that have tried it, most notably Tennessee.

But the folks crusading to dismantle traditional public schools and funnel public education money to private companies are undaunted even when confronted with the evidence that ASDs don’t work.

When one prominent defender of school privatization from Raleigh’s leading right-wing think tank was asked why he supported ASDs in the face of compelling evidence from other states that they don’t improve student achievement, he responded that Democrats used to copy failed ideas from other states too when they were in control of the General Assembly.

That was his defense, that Democrats also made bad choices.

A Republican legislator responded to a similar question during the legislative debate by saying it doesn’t matter that ASDs have failed in other states, because “this is North Carolina.” Our ears are different apparently.

Both answers are reminders of what’s really behind ASDs and a host of other privatization schemes described as education “reforms” by folks on the right.

The driving force is not improving student achievement, it’s serving a far-right ideology that prescribes that private is always better than public, that the free market can solve every problem, and that public schools need to turnover millions of dollars to private education reform “entrepreneurs.”

Just before the full House voted on ASD legislation, a full-page ad appeared in the News & Observer urging lawmakers to approve the bill.

As Billy Ball with NC Policy Watch reported at the time, the ad was paid for the Education Freedom Alliance from Oklahoma, a sister organization to the Challenge Foundation that runs 10 charter schools in North Carolina and is a key funder in the school privatization movement with close ties to the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Achievement school districts are straight out of the playbook that the ideologues in North Carolina are following whether evidence shows they work or not.

If lawmakers were serious about helping struggling schools and the low-income students who attend them, they could have increased funding the school transformation teams at the Department of Public Instruction that are showing promise in the 79 districts where they are operating.

The problem is that more than 500 schools have been designated as low-performing and the General Assembly has not provided enough funding for state education officials to help all of them.

But that’s government after all. The money has to go to the private sector.

If lawmakers wanted to explore another approach, they could have invited Tiffany Anderson to come talk to them about how to help struggling schools. She is the former head of the schools in Jennings, Missouri who recently accepted a job to run the schools in Topeka, Kansas.

Anderson received national acclaim for turning around the overwhelmingly poor schools in the Jennings School District. But she didn’t privatize the schools or convert them to charters.

She turned things around by helping the students and their families, setting up a food bank and medical clinic at the high school.

She installed washers and dryers that parents could use if they volunteered at the school. She started a shelter for homeless teens and a Saturday school and she reinstated arts programs.

The students in Jennings made huge progress with many kids now considering college for the first time.

The lesson seems pretty obvious. One of the best ways to help low-income kids do better in school is to address the challenges their families face because of their poverty.

But there’s no profit for anybody in that approach—or in adequately funding existing transformation teams in the state education agency.

And neither solution is part of the ALEC playbook. Those approaches don’t dismantle anything. They only help struggling schools and the low-income students currently stigmatized in them.

There’s one last hope to stop the ASD madness and reject the privatizers ideology. As of this writing Gov. Pat McCrory has not signed the ASD legislation.

He has a couple more weeks to decide if he wants to help the schools and the students in North Carolina or listen to ALEC and the out of the state right-wing foundations and support a plan that has failed in other states.

We’ll find out soon if he’ll stand up for public schools—or join legislative leaders in putting ideology over evidence in the latest move to dismantle them.

Chris Fitzsimon is the Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch

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By Chris Fitzsimon

N.C. Policy Watch

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