Around the country, states and cities are trying a new way to boost success rates at low-performing schools.
New efforts labeled ‘recovery school districts,’ ‘achievement school districts,’ ‘turnaround schools,’ and the like are making their way into places that include Tennessee, Louisiana, and Arkansas, to name a few — efforts that allow states to take over failing schools and relegate their management to private charter school operators that would be free to fire teachers and start from scratch.
Is North Carolina next to take up this flavor of education reform?
“I have heard rumblings around the legislative building about potential achievement zones coming to NC,” Rep. Tricia Cotham (D-Mecklenburg) told N.C. Policy Watch.
“The timing is interesting especially after the A-F grading of our schools,” Cotham said. “I would hope that the General Assembly would fully evaluate this potential idea and allow thoughtful input from stakeholders.”
Tennessee established an Achievement School District (ASD) five years ago in an effort to turn around failing schools, targeting schools primarily located in Memphis and Nashville.
How it works: the state identifies its bottom five percent of schools based on their students’ performance on standardized tests and marks them ‘priority schools,’ placing them within the state-controlled Achievement School District with the goal of lifting them up into the state’s top 25 percent within five years.
In most cases, however, the state doesn’t run the priority schools—instead, Tennessee contracts out their management to private charter school operators.
“It’s been so disruptive to the community,” parent advocate Lyn Hoyt, who is founder and president of TREE, Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence, a group dedicated to fighting for strong and equitable public schools, told N.C. Policy Watch.
“Schools in the ASD have a very hard time getting community buy-in,” said Hoyt. “A charter management company comes in and takes over a school, forces the teachers and staff to reapply for their jobs, and there is just no choice in the matter. The school has to take on a whole new persona under new management.”
Hoyt says that because the charter takeovers tend to be very sudden, parents become angry that their beloved neighborhood schools, which often serve as cornerstones of Memphis communities, become quickly transformed into unknown entities. Teachers hoping to hold on to their tenure rights tend to leave for more stable work environments if they can find them, and parents who have the means tend to pull their kids from the ASD charter schools in search of alternative options, leaving even larger concentrations of low-income, at-risk youth in the ASD schools.
Since the creation of the achievement school district, four charter operators have pulled out of Memphis—at least two because they saw troubling enrollment decreases, said Hoyt.
“It becomes very difficult for charter operators to become successful because they don’t have buy-in from the community, enrollment plummets…and it just becomes this hostile takeover,” said Hoyt.
The most recent charter school operator to get out of Memphis is YES Prep — the same charter operator that was founded by Tennessee’s current superintendent of the Achievement School District, Chris Barbic.
YES Prep reportedly pulled out of managing priority schools thanks to poor community support and a recent political shift against the concept of an achievement school district.
Another sticking point? Bubbling opposition to the idea of a phased-in approach that entails co-locating charter schools within traditional public schools and allowing the charters to expand one grade at a time—a tactic that charter operators endorse as a way to gradually build community support and resources, but local school districts are reluctant to participate in.
“It starts with the incoming kindergarten class,” explained Hoyt. “That pits existing teachers against the charter school teachers, who compete for a school’s resources—a takeover night mare.”
The chaos resulting from quick takeovers of low-performing schools and attempting to transform them into successful charter schools has brought angry parents out in droves across Tennessee.
In Memphis, contentious community meetings in which parents have vigorously protested ASD school turnovers to charters have effectively been shut down, reports TREE’s president Lyn Hoyt.
“Instead, just a few community members are appointed to come in and talk with principals about a possible takeover, avoiding a community meeting altogether,” said Hoyt.
And upon revelation that the state plans to charterize an elementary school in Nashville that was performing relatively well as compared with other low-performing schools, Nashville school board members took to opining their discontent.
“Why, under these circumstances, would the ASD insist upon a hostile takeover of Neely’s Bend when other local schools clearly require more attention,” wrote Nashville school board members Amy Frogge and Jill Speering.  “The answer is simple: The ASD is trying to save itself. It has cherry-picked a school to boost its own dismal performance.”
Since the establishment of the Achievement School District in Tennessee, gains in student achievement have not met expectations.
According to Frogge and Speering, in Memphis (where nearly all ASD schools were located as of 2014), “district-operated schools outpaced ASD schools, and, in fact, the ASD overall showed negative growth in every single subject area in 2014.”
Tennessee’s Achievement School District is modeled after an effort to transform New Orleans’ failing schools in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the city back in 2005.
More than 7,500 teachers were fired in New Orleans by the city’s new “Recovery SChool District,” many of which were replaced by Teach for America corps members. Nearly every public school was turned into a privately-managed charter school post Katrina.
Ten years following the devastating storm, some say the experiment to privatize the city’s poor public school infrastructure is working.
“The academic performance of New Orleans’ schools has improved remarkably over the past 10 years,” according to authors of a Tulane study that finds that the percentage of students attending schools that perform above the Louisiana average has almost doubled to 31 percent.
A statement by experts at the National Education Policy Center in Colorado dispute the findings.
“The [Tulane] authors also report that the [academic] gains were not equal across groups: white students gained more than black students from the reforms,” according to the NEPC, also noting that a large-scale out-migration of higher income students may have resulted in inflated growth scores for the charter schools.
And a 2013 investigative story published in Newsweek on New Orleans’ Recovery School District  notes that at that point in time, eight years following the establishment of the RSD, 79 percent of those schools were still rated a D or F according to the Louisiana Department of Education.
Critics say at-risk youth have been let down with the implementation of the RSD, according to the Newsweek story.
“The pressure to show high test scores and get kids into college, combined with the broad leeway given to charter schools to suspend and expel students, means the “difficult to teach” kids have been effectively abandoned,” said investigative reporter Andrea Gabor.
Rep. Craig Horn (R-Union), chair of the House K-12 education committee, said he too has heard discussions of establishing an achievement school district in North Carolina.
“[I have] read some materials about how [ASDs] work and what results have been achieved,” said Horn in an emailed response to N.C. Policy Watch. “It is an interesting concept that I would hope that we would consider for North Carolina.”
But Pamela Grundy, co-chair of MecklenburgACTS, a Charlotte-based organization dedicated to supporting public schools, sees cause for concern.
Grundy says the Senate’s current budget proposal, which proposes expanding the definition of low-performing schools and requiring that local districts come up with coordinated solutions to lift those schools up, coupled with possible legislation that would establish achievement school districts is not a plan likely to bring about student success.
It would create even more pressure for North Carolina schools to teach to the test, while paving the way for dramatic but counter-productive disruptions to schools and districts. We should all urge our legislators to reject it,” said Grundy.
Tennessee public schools advocate Hoyt hopes North Carolina doesn’t end up treading similar waters.
“For North Carolina, the Achievement School District would be just another business vehicle to establish more charter schools via a state-run school district that forces schools to be converted,” said Hoyt.
“How is a forced conversion school choice?”
Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or [email protected]