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Diane Ravitch's Blog: North Carolina: The End of an Experiment

North Carolina has been in the forefront of destructive education policies ever since the Tea Party won control of the state’s General Assembly (legislature) in 2010. Charters, vouchers, TFA, high-stakes testing, hostile indifference to teachers, etc.

But the rightwingers in NC wanted more. They wanted their own version of the Tennessee Achievement School District. They knew that Tennessee lawmakers had created a special district containing the state’s lowest-scoring schools; these schools would show dramatic improvement if handed over to charter operators.

The North Carolina legislators ignored the clear evidence that the Tennessee ASD was a failure, despite the state’s investment of $100 million from Race to the Top funding. Failure was no deterrent, no way to dissuade them from launching the magic elixir of privatization.

In 2016, the North Carolina General Assembly created its very own Achievement School District, which was soon renamed the Innovative School District. Now we know it too has failed. The General Assembly is defunding it.

The Innovative School District was supposed to contain five schools, but every time a school was designated, its district fought to keep the school. The ISD opened with only a single school, and that one school had a principal, a superintendent, and a charter management organization. An awful lot of administrators for one school.

Alex Granados wrote about the collapse of this bad idea in EdNC:

In an experiment, a hypothesis is tested. In the case of the Innovative School District (ISD), the hypothesis was that some of the state’s lowest-performing schools could be improved if they were grouped into one district, given charter school-like flexibility, and turned over to the management of alternative operators.

To judge by the biennium budget passed by the General Assembly in November 2021, North Carolina lawmakers must have concluded that the ISD experiment did not yield the result of improving schools, at least not in the way it was originally conceived. What other conclusion can be drawn from the fact that lawmakers put an end to the project in their two-year spending plan?


The Achievement School District bill was passed during the 2016 General Assembly short session. At the heart of the legislation was the creation of a district that would eventually include five low-performing schools from around the state that could be turned over to charter school operators.

It was originally called the Achievement School District and its first superintendent, Eric Hall, said at the time that it was modeled after similar experiments from other states that had “mixed results.”

“We have an opportunity as a state to redefine what it means in North Carolina,” Hall told the State Board of Education in 2017. But that redefinition never quite came to be.

A single school

The initial plan was that all five schools in the ISD would be up and running by the 2018-19 school year. It is now the 2021-22 school year, and there is still only one school. That is thanks to, in large part, massive resistance from some of the districts approached by the state.

The single school that was taken over as part of the ISD was Southside-Ashpole Elementary School in Robeson County. And it’s been a tough journey both for the school and for the district — since its inception, the ISD has had four superintendents and the school has had three principals.

Current ISD Superintendent Ron Hargrave told the State Board of Education in December 2021 about visiting a kindergarten class at Southside-Ashpole on his first day. A teacher said to him: “‘Well, you’ll be number four,’ and she was talking about the number of superintendents who’ve come through there,” he said.

Hargrave replied, “I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure you don’t need a number five, because I’m here to stay.”

But turnover hasn’t been the only issue.

The nonprofit charter organization that was running the operation was ultimately relieved of its responsibilities by the State Board of Education. You can read about the difficulties with that organization, Achievement for All Children (AAC), in N.C. Policy Watch here and here.

‘No common ground’

Did Southside-Ashpole improve? According to data, no.

Trip Stallings, whose team conducted the external evaluation of the ISD when he was with the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, said that a single school’s performance can’t really tell us anything about how well the ISD concept might work as a multi-school turnaround program.

“Because they only had one school in three years, you can’t really use that experience to validate or disprove the ISD approach,” he said. But there are a number of issues evident from even the experience of a single school that may have weakened the ISD structurally, according to Stallings.

One issue was that the legislation that created the ISD assumed there would be a wide variety of Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) vying to manage schools in the ISD. Instead, only three CMOs applied to manage Southside-Ashpole. The State Board of Education asked all three to resubmit their original proposals and, ultimately, the revised proposal from AAC was accepted.

“The real question is, ‘Why did other CMOs not apply?’” Stallings said.

Former ISD Superintendent Eric Hall presents to the State Board of Education Thursday, April 5, 2018. Alex Granados/EducationNC

Another problem, according to Stallings, was the disconnect among the operator, the State Board of Education, and the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) regarding how the ISD as a program should be implemented and managed.

“For example, none of the parties really reached agreement on the question of what this ‘charter-like flexibility’ means,” he said.

As a result, a superintendent, principal, and CMO leader all tried to assert separately how the single school in the district needed to operate. This led to confusion and dysfunction, he said.

Finally, Stallings said that the remote nature of the program was a “significant handicap.” DPI, AAC, and the school were all in separate locations and remote from each other not just geographically, but also culturally.

“They didn’t see many things in the same way,” he said. “For some issues, there was no common ground.”

According to the budget, Southside-Ashpole Elementary School will continue as part of the ISD until 2023-24 at the latest, when it will be returned to the Public Schools of Robeson County.

Craig Horn, a former Republican state representative from Union County, said this is terrible news. Not because he was a big fan of the ISD — he said he wasn’t — but because it is indicative of how the General Assembly operates.

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, talking about the education portions of the budget at a 2017 press conference. Alex Granados/EducationNC

Horn, an influential legislator when it came to education, lost his seat when he ran for the state superintendent position and lost to Catherine Truitt in 2020. He was there for the inception of the ISD.

“I’m going to suggest that rather than sit down and work out the problems, it’s easier and faster to say, ‘Ok, we’re done. We’re not doing it,’” he said.

Horn had a lot of problems with the ISD program, but said that if it has failed, he hopes lawmakers have done their homework to understand why.

“If we can say that we did our homework, we actually talked to the people inside, we actually talked to parents and students, we actually made some adjustments and we’re still failing, OK, then we made an informed decision,” he said. “But my experience with the General Assembly is they don’t always make informed decisions.”

Preparing for transition

The State Board of Education heard from the current leaders of the ISD and Southside-Ashpole at the December 2021 meeting.

Derrick Jordan, associate superintendent of agency schools, told the Board that efforts to improve the school are still happening.

“There is absolutely still work to be done, but there is an unwavering commitment to improving outcomes for the students at Southside-Ashpole,” he said.

And Hargrave stressed to Board members that the students in that school are “full of potential.”

“It is a school full of children who desire to be loved and desire to be taught, and they have a hunger for learning,” he said.

Freddie Williamson, superintendent of the Public Schools of Robeson County, said the district is ready to have the school back and is already working with the school and the ISD to prepare for a “smooth, seamless transition.”

There isn’t yet a timeline for the transition, but when Southside-Ashpole does return back to the control of Robeson County schools, State Board of Education member Olivia Oxendine said she hopes it keeps innovation a priority. She said innovation takes a long time, and whatever the ISD, the new teachers, new principal, or the community have done, it should continue.

“Whatever is beginning to happen called innovation, let’s carry it forward,” she said.

Nothing on the record shows that there was either innovation or achievement at the one school in the experimental district. But whatever it is, says Ms. Oxendine, keep doing it, even though it yielded no improvement.

The full story of North Carolina’s failed experiment is fascinating. The bill to create the state’s Innovative School District was sponsored by Republican Rob Bryan. The money to promote the bill was supplied by an ultra-conservative businessman from Oregon named John Bryan (no relation to the legislator). After the bill passed, the state Board of Education selected Achievement for All Children (AAC) as the charter operator, although it had no experience turning around low-performing schools.

Here’s the context, which appeared in NC Policy Watch.

Mecklenburg County Republican Senator Rob Bryan sponsored the bill as a member of the House in 2016 that became law and created the ISD. That law specifies that the ISD can have up to five schools, selected from the lowest-performing in North Carolina.

Bryan argued at the time that the new district would provide much-needed reforms, but the following year, as Policy Watch reported, he received at least $5,000 as a “stipend” for his work with AAC.

Several other low-performing schools, including two in Durham, were targeted for state takeover in 2017, but resisted the move. Then-ISD Superintendent Eric Hall ended his pursuit of those schools.

That left Southside-Ashpole, which began operating as the state’s first and only school within the Innovative School District at the start of the 2018-19 school year. Southside-Ashpole has an enrollment of 270, 95% of whom are students of color: Black, Latinx and American Indian.

In its first year as an ISD school, there was a wholesale house cleaning at Southside-Ashpole: After Superintendent Allen abruptly left, the State Board of Education hired Ellerbe to replace her. School principal Bruce Major also suddenly resigned, and AAC then hired Bowen.

It remains unclear whether the changes were due to job performance.

Meanwhile, there has also been a major upheaval within AAC’s business partner, TeamCFA, a Charlotte-based nonprofit that provides financial, instructional and management support to more than a dozen schools in North Carolina and four in Arizona.

TeamCFA is AAC’s curriculum partner, according to the ISD website.

Tony Helton, one of the state’s most influential charter school leaders, resigned his $160,000-a-year post as southeastern regional director of TeamCFA last August. While holding that position, Helton also worked as chief operating office of AAC. He was replaced by Cotham.

TeamCFA was started by John Bryan (no relation to Rob Bryan), a retired Oregon businessman who has used his wealth to promote school choice causes.

John Bryan is also a major contributor to Republican lawmakers and was instrumental in helping to pass the North Carolina law that created the ISD. From 2013 to 2016, Rob Bryan’s campaign received more than $22,000 in contributions from John Bryan, state reports show. John Bryan also contributed to then-Gov. Pat McCrory, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, NC House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger.

Raleigh’s News & Observer reported in October that Bryan and the Challenge Foundation, which Bryan also formed, stopped funding TeamCFA. In his final founder’s letter, Bryan talked about passing on the responsibility to other private investors and philanthropists.

TeamCFA had received as much as 95% of its annual revenue from Bryan and the Challenge Foundation, the paper reported. TeamCFA also receives $510,000 annually from the Charles Koch Foundation.

The NC Republican leadership was heavily funded by John Bryan from Oregon. Bryan was the funder of TeamCFA. TeamCFA was the partner of the only charter operator that applied to manage the district that was created by legislation funded by John Bryan.

What happened to the 270 students in the one school in the Innovative school District? Well, they have had a constant turnover of principals and superintendents. They were Guinea pigs for legislators who don’t know them and apparently don’t care about them.

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Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. She is the Co-Founder and President of the Network for Publi...