Tennessee’s State-Run District Runs Into Political Trouble

By Daarel Burnette II — December 29, 2015 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Tennessee’s state-run Achievement School District, which takes over low-performing schools and either runs them directly or hands them over to charter organizations, has run into partisan political trouble.

Several Democratic state lawmakers said Monday they will propose bills this upcoming legislative session to either shut down the turnaround district, which mostly is based in Memphis, or severely limit its authority to take over schools. Citing a recent Vanderbilt University study, the politicians said district-led turnaround efforts in Chattanooga, Memphis, and Nashville have academically outpaced the state’s and that until the state-run district can begin to show academic progress, it shouldn’t be allowed to take over more schools.

“The ASD should go back to its original goal and refocus on intense intervention at a small number of schools,” state Rep. Brenda Gilmore, chairwoman of the Black Caucus of State Legislators said during a press conference Monday.

Party caucus leaders echoed that sentiment on Twitter.

Democrats don’t have much political sway in the state’s Republican-controlled legislature, and Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and his appointed commissioner Candice McQueen said recently that they still support the turnaround initiative, which was created under the state’s waiver from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. Several bills were proposed last year to limit or shut down the ASD though only one actually passed. That bill limited the ASD to taking over schools that have failed to make any academic improvement.

“The ASD is one of multiple strategies to reach students in our lowest-performing schools, and we have seen schools perform better the longer they’re in the ASD,” a statement from Haslam’s office said.

In recent weeks, the state-run district’s takeover process has led to loud parking lot shouting matches and rowdy protests in several impoverished communities on the north and south end of Memphis. Shelby County Schools district leaders, which operate Memphis schools, have aggressively fought to pull students from the ASD to avoid funding cuts associated with a decreased enrollment. The Shelby County Schools board last month signed a resolution this month for the legislature to place a moratorium on the district.

Within the ASD, enrollment at several of the 27 schools has lagged, and YES Prep Public Schools, a nationally ranked charter operator based in Houston, abruptly abandoned its efforts to expand in Memphis after its leaders said they wouldn’t be able to meet enrollment projections.

Academically, the district’s charter operators in Memphis have struggled to cope with the city’s entrenched poverty and the abnormally high mobility rate of its student body. Leaders have also struggled to hire and retain quality and experienced teachers. Its superintendent, Chris Barbic, resigned this month.

Just days after Vanderbilt released its study in early December comparing the state-led and district-led turnaround efforts, the state took over four more schools. Parents involved in the months-long takeover process called the ASD’s efforts to include community voices in the process a “scam.”

The Shelby County Schools district’s own turnaround model, dubbed the Innovation Zone or iZone, involves replacing entire school staffs, frequent intervention for students who fall behind, and hours added onto the school day. Teachers get bonuses to work at the schools. Shelby County Schools’ staff has been more successful in coping with neighborhood poverty by deploying an expensive and time-intensive wraparound model that partly addresses psychological trauma and other needs.

Unlike the state-run effort, the Memphis district’s model does not involve charter operators. To pay for the effort, which costs around $8 million annually, district leaders have scraped together funds from the federal School Improvement Grant program, local philanthropists, and general funds. That financial model is not sustainable, district leaders have complained.

In a recent interview with Education Week, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said despite the state’s academic results, he still sees the ASD as a partner and said its presence in the city has created “healthy competition.” Almost all of the district’s worst-performing schools are undergoing some sort of intervention, he pointed out.

“The state is a very important institution in setting the tone for what’s going on here,” he said. “They’ve created the conditions for the iZone to thrive.”

But Shelby County Schools board member Kevin Woods was a little more blunt about the future of the state-run efforts.

“We want the state to put resources behind the iZone,” he said. “We know it’s a model that works. If we’re going to compete for limited resources, we must continue to make investments in a model we know that works. If they want to grow the pot to fund both the ASD and the iZone, that’s fine. But the last thing we want to do is rob Peter, to save Paul.”

Meanwhile, Michigan’s Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, proposed this week an alternative school turnaround model that provides more oversight of that state’s charter schools. He has previously said he’s willing to consider shutting down the state’s turnaround district if legislators are willing to adopt his plan. The district has been mired in corruption scandals.

There’s debate over whether Louisiana’s state-run system has improved New Orleans students’ academic outcomes. And Newark is set to soon retain control of its district after the state ran its schools for several years.

In Georgia, parents staged a protest in front of the state capitol earlier this month to stop a proposal by Republican Gov. Nathan Deal for the state to take over several low-performing Atlanta-area schools. The public will vote on the issue next November. There, as in Memphis, parents are citing studies that show state-run districts are not effective in turning around schools.

Nevada and Texas state lawmakers have also laid the groundwork for setting up their own turnaround districts.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.