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How the Innovative School District could choose its schools going forward

The North Carolina Senate delayed a vote to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the state budget again today, but it did tackle a bill that makes big changes to the way schools are put into the controversial Innovative School District (ISD). 

The bill passed both the House and Senate today, meaning it now goes to the governor for his signature, and if it becomes law, it absolves the State Board of Education from having to choose four schools to enter the Innovative School District next year. 

“I do think it’s critical you do something now, and we do have support from the State Board [of Education] on that,” said Sen. Rick Horner, R-Nash, while urging his fellow senators to support the bill.

The Innovative School District, at its most basic level, is a program that was supposed to ultimately take five of the lowest-performing schools in the state and put them in a virtual district. These schools can be operated by outside operators, including for-profit charter or education management organizations. Legislators created the ISD during the 2016 General Assembly short session.

Up to this point, the process by which the schools have been chosen moved quickly, with schools being identified and chosen for the ISD in one school year and joining the district the following school year. 

In contrast, the bill that passed today would create a three-year phased system, where the state’s lowest-performing schools would be identified in year one, put on a watch list in year two, and then put on a warning list in year three. From that point, they could be brought into the district if they don’t get off the warning list by improving their performance, and if they are in the five lowest-performing schools in the state. 

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, railed against the bill, criticizing the very nature of the ISD. 

“I believe that there still remains very little evidence that such Innovative School Districts work,” he said. “For the last three years, both the track record in other states and now here is one that receives a failing grade.”

He went on to point out that after one year in the ISD, its sole school — Southside-Ashpole in Robeson County — has a performance grade of F and didn’t meet academic growth.

Sen. Don Davis, D-Pitt, however, urged senators to support the bill, not because he likes the ISD but because the bill makes the ISD process better. 

He said that the bill lays out the process by which a school goes into the ISD much more clearly, and it delays the inclusion of more schools into the ISD. 

“This is not perfect. It’s much better than what is in place,” he said. “And if anything … I would like to join you one day to vote to repeal it altogether.” 

The House took up the bill later in the afternoon. 

Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, R-Wilkes, pointed out that the State Board of Education meets next week and is in the midst of having to decide what four schools to put into the ISD next year. With this bill, that decision could change dramatically. 

“They’re waiting for this bill to pass,” he said. 

Rep. Cynthia Ball, D-Wake, said that the state Department of Public Instruction used to have a robust school turnaround division until budget cuts “decimated” its staff. She said this bill isn’t an adequate way of addressing low-performing schools. 

“This conference report still falls way short,” she said. “I know we can do better.” 

The bill is actually a conference report. That’s because it’s the result of negotiations between the House and the Senate following the failure of a bill that tackled ISD changes.

Rep. Linda Johnson, R-Cabarrus, said that in addition to discussion between the House and the Senate, the bill was produced with input from the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, the State Board, and others. 

“I don’t think anyone wants to do this less than I do,” she said. “I’m not a real big supporter of this program, but I am a supporter of finding solutions to problems.”

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.