Equity & Diversity

Political Winds Buffet Tenn.'s Achievement School District

By Daarel Burnette II — January 12, 2016 5 min read
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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 say 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 lawmakers 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.

Legislative Fight

Democrats don’t have much sway in the state’s Republican-controlled legislature, and Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and his appointed education commissioner Candice McQueen said recently that they still support the turnaround initiative, which was created under the state’s waiver from provisions of the now-defunct 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.

First grader Makayla Taylor, 6, walks to breakfast at Aspire Public Schools in Memphis, Tenn., which is part of the state's Achievement School District.

“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.

Across the country, several state-run initiatives to turn around mostly urban schools are facing political pressures.

Michigan’s Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, proposed in December 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 Michigan’s turnaround district if legislators adopt his plan. The district has been mired in corruption scandals.

In Georgia, parents staged a protest in front of the state capitol last month to stop a proposal by Republican Gov. Nathan Deal for the state to take over several low-performing Atlanta-area schools. As in Memphis, parents are citing studies that show state-run districts are not effective in turning around schools.

Local officials in Newark, N.J., are set to soon regain control of the district after the state ran the city’s schools for 20 years. And there are still disputes over whether Louisiana’s state-run system improved public schooling in New Orleans in the years after Hurricane Katrina, a debate that remains alive now as the city’s public K-12 system has evolved into a complex landscape of independent charter schools.

In Nevada and Texas, state lawmakers have laid the groundwork for turnaround districts.

Protests and Pushback

In Tennessee, the state-run district’s takeover process has led to parking lot shouting matches and rowdy protests in several impoverished communities on the north and south ends of Memphis. Shelby County 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 school board last month signed a resolution for the legislature to, among other things, place a moratorium on the district.

Enrollment at several of the 27 ASD 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 high student mobility rate. Leaders have also struggled to hire and retain high-quality and experienced teachers. The ASD’s superintendent, Chris Barbic, left office in December.

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

Other Models

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

Shelby County 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 Kevin Woods, a Shelby County board member, 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. “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.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2016 edition of Education Week as Political Winds Buffet Tenn.'s Achievement School District

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