Mandated UNC lab-school project getting a tune-up from legislative backers

State legislators appear likely to tinker with the university lab-school experiment they ordered the UNC system to begin last year, to put campus chancellors and the system Board of Governors more firmly in charge of a project that targets North Carolina’s elementary and middle schools.

Supporters of the changes packaged them into a bill that cleared the N.C. House last month on a 114-0 vote. It now awaits action in the state Senate, but one of its lead sponsors, state Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, rates its chances of passing as good because it’s “the result of a lot of collaboration” among senators, House members, UNC officials and other interests.

“I didn’t sit in my office and dream this up,” Horn said, adding that he thinks “it’s going to do well in the Senate.”

Embedded in the state’s fiscal 2016-17 budget, the lab-school project asked the UNC system to set up charter-school-like collaborations between eight of its universities and local public school districts with “low performing” K-8 schools.

In November, UNC responded by saying Appalachian State University, East Carolina University, N.C. Central University, UNC-Charlotte, UNC-Greensboro, UNC-Pembroke, UNC-Wilmington and Western Carolina University had volunteered to participate.

Since then, East Carolina has announced a partnership with the Pitt County Schools, Western Carolina with the Jackson County Schools and Appalachian State with the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.

But from the start, there’s been worry that the project was rushed, that it’s insufficiently funded and that some of the details legislators wrote into the original statute were problematic. Horn surfaced early as one of the doubters on those fronts, though his fundamental support for lab schools was not in question.

“The concept was right, but I think we got a little ahead of ourselves,” Horn said.

The biggest change in new legislation, House Bill 532, would remove campus trustees from the chain of command of the proposed lab schools. For now, they’re the de facto school board/board of directors for any lab school their university launches.

If the modifications bill goes through, a campus chancellor would become “the administrative head” of his or her university’s lab schools. Each would have an advisory board to work with that includes the dean of the university’s teacher-training program, a campus trustee, faculty, the school superintendent from the partner district, a community member from the district and up to four other people.

The change responds to qualms about the original arrangement from UNC system President Margaret Spellings, who in a letter to Horn last fall noted that campus trustees are generally picked for their ability to offer advice on university issues, not for their expertise on K-8 schools.

She also proposed that legislators ask a system Board of Governors subcommittee to watch over the lab-school project, or that they set up an all-new trustee board specifically for it. The new House bill — which has a parallel Senate version that so far hasn’t received a floor vote — chose the BOG subcommittee option.

Horn said the proposed changes recognize that “there’s a lot of difference between making policy and running an operation,” and that “boards do great at making policy.”

Another change relaxes the original bill’s requirement that universities target districts where 25 percent or more of the schools are low-performing in terms of students’ year-to-year academic improvement. It proposes allowing the BOG subcommittee to make up to three exceptions to the district-wide benchmark, so long as a university is still partnering with a low-performing school.

Some campus officials had thought the original language likely to rule out working with nearby schools and districts, forcing students and professors into long commutes to contribute to the project.

Another provision instructs UNC to ultimately launch “at least nine” lab schools.

Funding, however, remains an uncertainty. System leaders have asked for $1.9 million in additional funding in fiscal 2017-18, for startup and operational costs. Gov. Roy Cooper’s 2017-18 state budget request didn’t include the money, but legislators have yet to weigh in. The Senate is scheduled to release its draft of the budget on Tuesday, May 9.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg