Every Student Succeeds Act

States Adjust Course on School Turnaround Districts

States adjust course on special districts
By Daarel Burnette II — September 05, 2017 | Corrected: September 14, 2017 6 min read
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Corrected: A previous version incorrectly described Nevada’s intervention process for low-performing schools. The district pairs its lowest-performing schools with charter school operators but does not run schools directly. The accompanying article also mischaracterized parents’ rights to petition for state intervention, which only applies to parents of children in certain low-performing schools.

In the waning years of the No Child Left Behind Act, school turnaround districts became a solution du jour for many state legislatures: Take all of your worst-performing schools, place them in their own state-controlled district, and either run them directly or hand them over to a charter school operator. A network of autonomous, independently-run schools was seen as a route to swift, efficient, and inspirational improvement.

To date, six states have experience with some form of turnaround district, their startup costs paid in a variety of ways, including by philanthropists, state funding, and federal School Improvement Grant money.

Factors Driving Change

As the new school year starts, the turnaround-district picture reflects some changes. Among the factors: high-profile community backlash to the school takeover process in some places; new wrinkles to the school improvement process under the Every Student Succeeds Act as NCLB’s successor; and a desire on the part of state legislators, governors, and district leaders to adjust course.

Louisiana and Tennessee have dramatically scaled back their estimates of how many schools they had hoped to run in the coming years, shuttering some schools and handing back to local officials control of others.

Michigan eliminated its entire turnaround district this summer under new legislation, returning control of all the schools to local Detroit officials.

Meanwhile, Nevada’s district took over its first two schools this year, though the takeover process is much more incremental and provides districts more flexibility than Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

And North Carolina and Georgia are planning to jump-start statewide turnaround initiatives by the fall of next year.

“The recognition of the dire need to improve these poorly performing schools is a positive,” said Ron Zimmer, a professor at the University of Kentucky who has studied the impact of school turnaround districts. “However, with the actual implementation of this focus, you need to be careful because you could end up alienating teachers, parents, and communities that are affected.”

At the same time, ESSA gives districts more powers to come up with their own turnaround strategies before the state intervenes. And the law allows states to set aside up to 7 percent of their Title I money, which focuses on disadvantaged students, for turnaround initiatives.

Here’s a roundup of school turnaround district activity in a number of states:

Georgia: Georgia’s state board of education is currently searching for the overseer of its turnaround initiative. The initiative was set up last legislative session after the failure of a ballot initiative pushed by Republican Gov. Nathan Deal to create such a district.

The new turnaround chief will guide districts in their efforts, matching them with resources, charter operators, and consultants. At no point in time, though, will the state directly run schools. The state expects to hire a turnaround czar by November this year and begin operations next school year.

“The proof is in the pudding,” said Kevin Tanner, a Republican state representative who authored the original legislation. “What we’re doing is not working. We need to do things differently.”

Louisiana: The state has the longest-operating turnaround district, created in 2003 shortly before Hurricane Katrina devastated large swaths of the city and scattered its student body and teaching force. At its height, the Recovery School District, which handed direct authority over underperforming schools to charter school operators, had more than 107 schools under its watch. But over the last several years, the state has given back control to the local school board, and this school year the RSD has 40 schools.

“We’re putting faith in the idea that people closest to students have the best plans for those students,” said Kunjan Narechania, the chief of the RSD.

The state this year also entered into an agreement with Shreveport school officials to jointly operate 14 persistently underperforming schools. The schools are placed under the direction of a board made up of community members and state officials, who then come up with turnaround plans for the schools.

More than 17 percent of Louisiana’s schools fall into the lowest-performing categories on the state’s accountability system and, if they don’t improve, would be eligible to be folded into the RSD. The state this year set up a competitive grant that would allow district administrators overseeing schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent to select from a slate of turnaround consultants, charter operators, and curriculum providers. Awards are to be announced later this month.

Michigan: The legislature this year disbanded its state-run turnaround district after a long-standing dispute over the powers of the state and the effectiveness of the takeover process. The Education Achievement Authority was established in 2012 and, at its height, ran 15 schools. The Detroit school board now operates the remaining schools, three of which are run by charter operators.

Nevada: This school year, the state took over its first two schools as part of its Achievement School District, established by the legislature in 2015. One of the schools, an existing charter school, was taken over by Democracy Prep, a New York City-based charter school operator. The state’s law allows for the district to absorb up to six schools a year.

Rebecca Feiden, director of the Nevada ASD, said in order to build district and community support, the state’s department of education has scrutinized potential charter providers’ ability to engage with the community and take over existing schools. In addition, the state education department is advocating the legislature allow for parents whose children are in certain low-performing schools to petition for state intervention of low-performing schools.

“This is not about finding one solution, It’s about finding the one that works in that context,” Feiden said.

North Carolina: This week, the state is expected to announce a list of schools eligible to be taken over by the state, said Drew Elliot, the North Carolina education department spokesman.

The legislature established the district in 2016, but the takeover process has stalled as Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has been in a legal dispute with lawmakers over the powers of the Democratic-controlled state board of education and the Republican state superintendent.

The state’s process allows for the district to choose whether to shutter the school or give the reins to the state, which can run the school directly or hand the school over to a charter school operator.

Tennessee: After federal Race to the Top funding ran out, the Achievement School District this summer laid off more than half its staff. And last year, after stagnant enrollment numbers, the KIPP charter school network shuttered one of its schools operating in the district.

The district has been in a long-standing legal dispute with the Shelby County school district over student records, which buildings are eligible for school takeover, and where charter operators can recruit from.

Shelby County has operated its own innovation zone that has historically outperformed the ASD. That’s fueled a movement at the state capital to lengthen the time that districts have to improve their own schools before the state intervenes, and it sparked a new initiative in Chattanooga where the state is working with the local school district to establish turnaround strategies for its schools.

A version of this article appeared in the September 06, 2017 edition of Education Week as Tweaking School Turnarounds


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