- Too many NC children are trapped in failing schools
- Achievement School Districts offer local districts different tools to improve academic performance
- Strong provisions are needed to ensure success and accountability
North Carolina’s worst public schools continue to fail too many children. The numbers are staggering: only 36 percent of African-Americans are proficient in eighth-grade reading, and only 23 percent in math. For Hispanics the numbers aren’t much better: 41 percent are proficient in eighth-grade reading and 33 percent in math.
If you’re a child trapped in one of these schools, your only option is to enroll in a charter or private school. If you do, you manage to escape the problem, but the problem remains for others. True school reform in many of our most troubled schools is often a casualty of entrenched bureaucracies resistant to change. But there is hope. New models of how school districts are governed, managed and operate are emerging to address these concerns. The results of new school district models in Louisiana (Recovery School District) and Tennessee (Achievement School District) have caught the attention of policymakers and given hope to a new generation of students and parents.
Achievement School Districts (ASDs) in particular have helped to improve failing schools in Louisiana and Tennessee. According to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research and MIT, “Charter school takeovers in the New Orleans Recovery School District appear to have generated substantial achievement gains for a highly disadvantaged student population that enrolled in these schools passively.” In Tennessee, ASDs report modest gains after just two years and more impressive gains in high school. In ASDs that used the phase-in approach of taking over schools on a grade-by-grade level, schools averaged a 22-point gain in reading proficiency on the state assessment. 
Can these models help to turn around failing schools in North Carolina?
State Rep. Rob Bryan (R-Mecklenburg) and many others seem to think so. That’s why Bryan introduced HB 1080. Last week the bill was approved by the education committee and is expected to be up for a vote on the House floor later today. So what does HB1080 do?
Simply stated, HB1080 provides North Carolina with a number of new options for turning around failing school districts.
First, the legislation would create an Achievement School District comprised of Achievement Schools and run by a superintendent who must have a proven record of success. The superintendent would be responsible for drawing up and executing a plan for improving academic results. He or she would have five years to meet those goals and also have the authority to waive State Board of Education (SBE) regulations and policies. In many ways, ASD schools would be similar to charter schools.
Schools that are members of the ASD will be directly managed by an individual operator, subject to the approval of the superintendent and the State Board of Education. Achievement School Operators are responsible for selecting staff members for the school.
After five years, if the Achievement School doesn’t meet its state goals, it will either be closed or given an extension to meet the goals. If goals are met or exceeded, the Achievement School would be given the option to convert to a charter school.
A second way HB1080 can improve failing schools involves Local Education Agencies (LEAs) that have transferred a qualifying school to an ASD. In cases when the LEA does so, the local board of education can request that the State Board of Education create local “Innovation Zones” for up to three consistently low-performing schools within the local district. Innovation Zones are designed to create an environment where schools can creatively apply innovative techniques and practices in the classroom. To ensure individual autonomy, Innovation Zones would be exempt from many of the same regulations and policies that charter schools are.
A third and final way HB1080 offers to improve failing schools is by allowing schools that have not been selected as an Achievement School to petition the State Board of Education to adopt any one of five models to improve academic performance. These include the Transformation Model, Restart Model, Principal Turnaround Model, School Closure Model or Principal Turnaround Model.
The Principal Turnaround Model may be the most visible of these models. It allows schools to hire new principals with proven with proven records in turning around failing schools. Principals are given five-year contracts, the ability to hire staff, and the authority to develop and execute a plan for meeting academic goals. Under the legislation, the State Board of Education is given the authority to hire up to ten Turnaround Principals for schools across North Carolina.
ASD provides a pilot program for changing how school districts are governed, managed and operate. Critics say ASDs suspend local control in favor of state control, and that conservatives ought to be wary. That’s not a fair comment. Although the State Board of Education directs much of the process, ASDs are driven by local input and effort. This is necessary because, for whatever reason, the local schools have failed to produce the right results. ASD respects local control and builds in safeguards to ensure local voices are heard.
Conservatives have been right to champion charter schools and school choice as remedies for students trapped in failing schools. The growth of these options as well as an emerging body of favorable research outcomes both validate the wisdom of these choices. The promise of charters and school choice was to also infuse needed reforms into the public school system. However, that hasn’t happened as quickly as hoped. Too many children are still trapped in schools that fail students and are resistant to reform. That’s where this new idea comes in. Achievement School Districts can give policymakers an important new tool for helping students when traditional teaching methods and the bureaucracy fail.
HB1080 is not a perfect bill. However, it does offer better ways to improve some of North Carolina’s worst schools in ways that can foster both success and accountability. It’s an option that is far more attractive than the alternative – continuing to do something that isn’t working.
 Turnaround School Districts, by Nelson Smith, Education Next, April 2015, available at: http://educationnext.org/turnaround-school-districts/