Last week, North Carolina’s House K-12 Education Committee approved House Bill 1080, a bill that would establish an Achievement School District (ASD) in North Carolina.  The ASD would supervise and operate five of North Carolina’s lowest-performing elementary schools.

Public school advocacy groups, such as the North Carolina Association of Educators, oppose the establishment of an ASD in the state.  Shouldn’t Republican lawmakers support it for that very reason?

A more serious question is why liberals are up in arms about the potential takeover of five of North Carolina’s 1,845 elementary schools. Indeed, the ASD would oversee instruction and operations for only 0.3 percent of elementary schools in the state.  That is hardly a recipe for the kind of widespread calamity prophesized by those on the Left.  Then again, their objection to the ASD has more to do with advancing their “school privatization” narrative than actually trying to improve chronically low-performing schools and bolster economic and educational opportunities for North Carolina’s disadvantaged children.

Accordingly, ASD opponents have put forward suspect claims about the proposed legislation and record.

For example, opponents of achievement district legislation complain that it lacks accountability.  HB 1080, however, includes robust accountability measures.  Consider the fact that

  • the members of the State Board of Education select an established entity to manage the ASD;
  • the ASD Superintendent serves at the pleasure of the State Board of Education;
  • the ASD Superintendent must submit an annual report on all aspects of the operation to the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee;
  • the ASD may be terminated by the State Board of Education if its schools do not meet certain student performance benchmarks;
  • the State Board of Education is required to contract with an independent research organization to evaluate the implementation and effectiveness of the ASD at the conclusion of the initial five‑year contract; and
  • most importantly, the General Assembly could repeal ASD legislation at any time.

Simply put, the ASD is subject to the oversight of both the State Board of Education and the members of the General Assembly.  If it ain’t working, it ain’t staying.

To their credit, lawmakers have carefully evaluated the ASD in an interim committee and remain cautious.  They recognize that the initial results from similar plans in other states are encouraging but those plans did not necessarily produced immediate or consistent gains in student achievement.

For example, results from the third year of Tennessee’s ASD indicated that “student scores grew faster than the state in math and science, second- and third-year schools earned state’s highest possible growth rating, and high schools made proficiency gains in every subject.”  On the other hand, reading scores declined slightly last year and remain relatively low.

North Carolina’s ASD will build on the considerable strengths of the idea, while keeping in mind shortcomings identified by ASDs in Tennessee and elsewhere.  In fact, Chapel Hill-based Public Impact already did the work.  In The Achievement School District: Lessons from Tennessee, authors Juli Kim, Tim Field, and Elaine Hargrave conclude,

The true measure of ASD success will become clearer in the coming years as the portfolio of ASD schools matures and demonstrates a multiyear track record of student academic performance. The long-term legacy of the ASD will hinge on how public officials, school operators, philanthropic organizations, and community members navigate many of the topics covered in this report.

Later this year, the Tennessee Department of Education will release standardized test scores for 2016.  At that point, we’ll have a much clearer picture of the performance of the state’s ASD schools.

In the meanwhile, lawmakers should lay the groundwork for an Achievement School District in this state.  Conservatives must be bold if they truly care about raising student achievement for those who need it the most.