When Chris Barbic took the helm of Tennessee’s new Achievement School District in 2011, there was little guidance for how a state-run turnaround school district might look.
“Nothing existed,” Barbic said recently during a Fordham Institute panel on turnaround districts. “I walked into an office with a sheet of paper with some legislation, and the charge was, go start a school district.”
That’s beginning to change as more lawmakers across the nation look to Barbic’s Achievement School District as a model to improve struggling schools on a larger scale — even as the impact of Tennessee’s pioneering district remains murky.
As the ASD completes its third year of operation, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arkansas all appear poised to launch state-run turnaround school districts, with Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Nevada even seeking to copy Tennessee’s “ASD” moniker.
Before Tennessee established the ASD in its omnibus 2010 First to the Top Act, only Louisiana had tried its hand at a turnaround school district, in which the state had authority to take control of low-performing public schools and convert them into charter schools.
But Louisiana’s situation was different than Tennessee’s. Its turnaround district, called the Recovery School District (RSD), was established in 2004, and quickly became the dominant school system in New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when most of New Orleans’ educational infrastructure was literally washed away. Today, it operates about 60 schools — all charters — while the Orleans Parish School District operates 20.
Tennessee’s ASD arose out of the federal Race to the Top grant competition, which incentivized states to come up with bold proposals to improve their worst schools. The ASD was the centerpiece of Tennessee’s resulting First to the Top Act, which also overhauled teacher evaluations and instituted Common Core. For its efforts, Tennessee joined Delaware as the nation’s first recipients of the Race to the Top grant, providing Tennessee an additional $500 million in education spending over four years.
As the ASD was being created, Michigan was laying the groundwork for its own state-run district, the Educational Achievement Authority. The ASD and Michigan’s district both began operation in 2012, but Tennessee’s district has twice as many schools — 29 in the 2015-16 school year, mostly in Memphis —and has had a smoother start than its Michigan counterpart.
The ASD also is the only district of its type with the concrete goal of lifting the state’s worst-performing 5 percent of schools to the top 25 percent in five years.
The buzz has attracted national attention and copycat initiatives from a growing list of states. Pennsylvania’s Senate passed a bill last week to approve an ASD there, and the measure now awaits a House vote. Nevada’s legislature approved an ASD in May. Georgia voters will decide next year on a constitutional amendment to create an “Opportunity School District.”
In at least five other states — Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin — lawmakers or activists have begun campaigns to launch similar programs.
Meanwhile, Virginia attempted to model its own turnaround district after the ASD, but a court struck down the law that would have permitted creation of the “Opportunity Education Institute.” The court ruled that the plan violated the state’s constitution because the district was created by the legislature, and not by the state board of education, and because it unseated local district control.
For his part, Barbic is unsure if there are enough high-quality charter operators to go around, should the ASD copycats get off the ground.
“The bottom line is that there are not a lot of great charter operators to begin with, and there are even fewer who understand how to do turnaround,” he said during Fordham’s panel, which also included leaders from Louisiana and Michigan.
“If we don’t solve the charter supply problem, we can have as many of these (turnaround districts) on the books as we want, but it’s going to be very difficult for them to actually be executed and done well,” said Barbic, who was recruited to Tennessee from Houston, where he helped found the Yes Prep charter network.
Barbic is no stranger to the challenges. Many of the ASD’s Memphis schools lag behind their counterparts in Shelby County Schools’ own school turnaround program known as the Innovation Zone. And last year, four charter networks — including Yes Prep — backed out of plans to expand with the ASD. In addition to often mediocre improvement on end-of-year tests, the ASD has frequently been accused of clumsy engagement with the communities in which it opens schools.
Barbic acknowledges that the ASD has made mistakes, but is quick to point out changing attitudes and priorities among local education leaders as a result of the looming threat of ASD intervention in lackluster districts. He thinks the ASD has helped propel district-led turnaround efforts such as Memphis’ I-Zone.
Community engagement has often fallen by the wayside, he said, because of the district’s speedy timeline.
“Some of that lays at our feet, and some of that is the speed in which we’ve had to move with this,” Barbic said before conceding that “there has to be more parent demand for what we’re trying to do” if the district is to be ultimately successful.
Education leaders in Tennessee have watched the ASD’s evolution with both fascination and fear.
Will Pinkston, a school board member for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, coined the term “Achievement School District” during the drafting of the First to the Top Act when he worked for then-Gov. Phil Bredesen. He has since become an ASD critic, saying the initiative was never intended to rely so heavily on charter operators, or grow so quickly.
“If other states want to commit to creating pro-public education turnaround agencies that are designed to help students and teachers in traditional schools, I think it’s great for them to co-opt the name,” Pinkston said. “If they’re instead looking to turn their backs on traditional public education, as the ASD is doing, then I would encourage them to look at different and more intellectually honest monikers.”
“Regardless,” he joked, “it’s abundantly clear that we should have trademarked the brand with the royalties going to support public schools.”