Tennessee’s state-run turnaround district could soon get its wings clipped — and its leaders are among those calling for the changes.
Right now, the Achievement School District can both overhaul low-performing schools and start new schools. Lawmakers are considering a bill that would stop the district from starting new schools and make it harder for the district to take over struggling schools.
Rep. David Hawk of Greeneville filed the bill last week at the request of the State Department of Education. In addition to curbing new starts, the legislation proposes changing the rules so that the ASD no longer can take over struggling schools unilaterally. Instead, the state would give local districts time and resources to turn around their lowest-performing schools.
The hope is that, with extra support, local districts will improve schools without the Achievement School District interceding.
Taken together, the two proposals would curtail the district’s ability to grow at a time when it already is closing schools. In recent months, two charter operators have backed out of schools within the district, pointing to a shrinking presence for the ASD regardless of whether the state changes its approach to school turnaround.
The bill’s wide support suggests that the aggressive approach originally taken by the ASD is falling out of favor.
State education officials say the proposed changes are meant to restore the state-run district to the purpose it was intended in 2010, when lawmakers created the ASD to take over schools that were so far gone that their districts couldn’t — or wouldn’t — improve them.
Read more about how the State Department of Education wants to change its approach to school turnaround work.
Starting in 2011, though, some charter operators tapped by the district were given the option to open new schools too.
Four operators used that option, and so far they have launched five new ASD schools. A sixth, from the national network Rocketship, is slated to open in Nashville this fall. It would be the ASD’s last new school if Hawk’s bill passes and the district’s work is limited to turnaround.
“That is the purpose of the work we’re doing; it is the purpose of the ASD,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. “We need to clarify, so there’s no confusion.”
ASD officials say the new rules are necessary in part because of Memphis’s declining student enrollment — which is putting pressure on all local schools.
“We already have far too many school buildings for the number of students we have,” said Bobby S. White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs. “New starts have to come off the table, and we have to be comfortable with that.”
The bill came out of the State Education Department’s plan to comply with the new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. A state spokeswoman confirmed that ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson helped to draft the school improvement part of the plan, including the language around the district she runs.
“We’re refining our focus,” White explained. “It is at some level informed by feedback and our own learning.”
The ASD underwent scrutiny last summer by lawmakers who had questions about the ASD’s purpose, effectiveness and end game. With the endorsement of state officials, the bill reining in the district is likely to become law. In that case, the ASD will have to revise its agreements with charter operators who have been told since 2011 that they can open new schools.
Such changes run the risk of shaking operators’ commitment to the state-run district at a time when two operators already have pulled the plug on one or more of their ASD schools. They also could potentially dissuade other charter operators from choosing to work in Tennessee.
Turnaround work is considered far more challenging than starting new charter schools. School leaders have a harder time establishing a school culture and also inherit challenges that led to the school’s low performance in the first place.
But White said all of the operators are aware of the possible changes. “We’ve not really had pushback,” he said.
McQueen said operators who are committed to the district’s mission shouldn’t be deterred.
“Our intention is to attract the operators who want to come in and … take schools that are in a community, take them with all grade levels at one time, and do this school turnaround work,” she said.