“Fear of failure should never be a deterrent.” That is what one lawmaker said last week when debating the latest plan to improve our schools. While fear of failure shouldn’t be a deterrent, a clear and present risk of a total flop should give us pause.
The Achievement School District pilot program recently approved by the state house would allow charter school operators to take over low performing public schools and put them under one statewide district. Lt. Governor Dan Forest would pick a superintendent (approved by the State Board of Education) who could choose to hand over operations to any number of different entities, including for-profit charter school operators or other out of state organizations, taking control away from local school boards.
We’re happy to see much-needed attention and focus on struggling schools, but we’re not convinced that swapping out management and teachers will provide a silver bullet fix to complex underlying issues. This gets to the heart of the question of why schools aren’t performing well: is it the challenges associated with intergenerational poverty, high teacher turnover, under-resourced schools, bad management, or a combination of these and other complicated challenges?
In North Carolina, the relationship between low-performing schools, high poverty, and high teacher turnover is crystal clear. Nearly 99% of schools that received an F on the latest school performance grades and 94% of schools that received a D have a majority of their students living in poverty. The five counties with the highest teacher turnover rates also have some of the highest poverty rates in North Carolina. We’re betting that these challenges to school achievement may require more than outsourcing school management to the private sector.
In fact, the achievement school districts approach has been tried in Tennessee, and other states too—and it hasn’t worked. Recent research shows no evidence of achievement school districts leading to improved student achievement in Tennessee, with “little to no effect” on student performance.
And it’s not a cheap proposal either. In Tennessee, a $500 million Race to the Top grant helped fund the creation of achievement school districts. Those federal funds are no longer available to North Carolina, and so the General Assembly is proposing to spend between $400,000 and $1 million dollars on ASD in the pilot’s first year alone—money that could otherwise support efforts to improve low performing schools that have a definite track record of success.
And so, the question is this: why should we redirect tax dollars to potentially out-of-state for-profit companies that are not accountable to local communities to run our local schools?
Supporting local public schools is the best way to prepare children across North Carolina for life— and sustained investment in local schools and in teachers is what really makes a difference for our children. Our partners at Public School Forum and other organizations focused on the well-being of NC kids are advocating for adequate school funding, teacher pay, early childhood education, and state support for children in poverty. With limited resources being put towards supporting our public school students, we need to think carefully about redirecting these tax dollars towards an unproven, ineffective program.
To be clear, the proposal to pilot an achievement school district in North Carolina is a risky one– and we shouldn’t make our children the guinea pigs. The future of our children is not something with which we should gamble. Fear of failing shouldn’t deter us from improving our schools, but failing our kids all in the name of trying something new isn’t a sound approach either.