As the 2015 session of the North Carolina General Assembly stumbles along through its eighth calendar month with no real end yet in sight, you’d think state lawmakers might be looking for ways to find common ground, bring things to a responsible conclusion and, well, you know, govern.
Amazingly, however, completely new and radical proposals just keep emerging out of thin air.
Last Thursday, the Senate unveiled and rammed three ALEC-inspired constitutional amendments through committee on a single voice vote. The amendments are scheduled for a floor vote today. If made the law of the land next year, as the Senate proposes, the amendments would decimate North Carolina’s fiscal health for decades to come and alter the very nature of state government.
Now, this week, the state House is expected to take up a proposal that aims to do something very similar for public education.
Like the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights (or “Taxpayer Bill of Goods” as it’s come to be known in Colorado – the only state to implement it) the new public education proposal is a radical idea that was conceived in the world of conservative, market fundamentalist think tanks. Its two guiding premises: a) that traditional public schools are inherently flawed and incapable of meeting the needs of students and b) that the profit motive and the “genius” of market forces are what is needed to turn things around.
The proposal would establish something known as “Achievement School Districts” though they are also sometimes referred to as “recovery school districts” and/or “turnaround schools.” As N.C. Policy Watch reporter Lindsay Wagner explained in a July story, they are also sometimes referred to as “New Orleans style” schools because that city went whole hog for the concept after the Hurricane Katrina disaster.
The basic idea is this: the state identifies a specified number of low performing schools and then takes control away from the local school districts in which they are located. The schools are then closed or turned into charter schools run by private entities. In the proposal percolating behind closed doors in the North Carolina House, the new Achievement School District would apparently be comprised of five schools selected from the bottom 25% of schools in the state.
On one level, of course, state takeovers of and interventions in troubled schools are not particularly radical or inherently flawed. In many instances – especially in districts with few resources and high numbers of children in need – direct state intervention can be beneficial.
What’s problematic and extremely worrisome about the House proposal, however, is the plan to “charterize” the schools in question. As envisioned, the struggling North Carolina schools will be turned over to a charter operator that will be free to raze them.
Such a plan is clearly an effort to edge the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent. As has been the case with vouchers and charters generally, once the precedent is established for turning public schools into charters, conservative ideologues are sure to press for repeated and rapid expansion of the idea. Indeed, one of the most powerful members of the North Carolina House has said for years that he would like to see all North Carolina schools transformed into charters.
Add to this the fact that it has been written in secret and has yet to be officially shared with the public, and the alarm bells ring even louder.
Even if one sets aside for a moment the existential, longer-term threat to public education posed by the creation of another avenue for the rapid expansion of charters, there are real and practical, near-term reasons to doubt the usefulness of turning troubled schools over to charter outfits.
In Tennessee, where a similar plan got underway in earnest in 2012, reading scores in the achievement school district plummeted in the first year of operation and have failed to return to pre-takeover levels. The majority of these schools remain in the bottom 5-percent.
Other observers note that a huge problem stems from the fact that charter operators do not have experience running such “turnaround” schools. These outfits are generally set up to operate new schools with students selected through an application process or lottery rather than to take over existing schools that serve all students in a given attendance zone. Many use the model of “creaming” or “skimming” good students with engaged parents. As the head of Tennessee’s Achievement School District stated in his resignation letter this year, “Let’s just be real: achieving results in neighborhood schools is harder than in a choice environment.”
When asked about the problems experienced by Achievement School Districts in Tennessee, one North Carolina supporter of the concept was recently reported to have explained that things would be different here because the charters would be made to include all sorts of “wraparound” services designed to help kids in needy situations.
But, of course, if that’s something seriously under consideration, why not just provide such services via enhanced public schools?
When public schools have pre-K and other early childhood services, small classes, highly qualified teachers and support personnel with access to professional development opportunities, and excellent, up-to-date textbooks and technology, they typically do a much better job of educating the children assigned to them.
Things get even better when the kids come to school rested and well-fed, with their eyes and teeth cared for, when they get access to a decent and affordable school lunch and when they return to safe, decent homes that their parents can afford each day after school.
In other words, there’s no great mystery about what we should do to make our public schools work – even in struggling parts of our state in which the children who attend come from extremely tough backgrounds and home lives. What is needed is a total community commitment – the kind of commitment a good parent devotes to his or her own child.
Moreover, when such a commitment exists, the public school becomes a focal point of the community – not just for children, but for adults too. It is the ultimate, common good institution and part of the glue that promotes and binds us to shared, communal values.
Sadly, what charters offer in contrast (and what politicians offer by touting them as magic and cheap solutions) is the notion that we as a society can somehow turn our children over to the “genius of the market” and the shopping acumen of their parents and then go about our merry way, relieved of our collective societal responsibility.
To the extent we can resist this toxic philosophy; we will do our children and ourselves a tremendous service.
Rob Schofield is the Director of Research and Policy Development for N.C. Policy Watch.