exit strategy

Chris Barbic, founding superintendent of state-run Achievement School District, to exit

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette
Achievement School District Superintendent Chris Barbic visits Georgian Hills Elementary, a Memphis school that the state-run district has operated since 2013.

Chris Barbic, the hard-charging superintendent of Tennessee’s school turnaround district, is resigning at the end of the year.

Now that the Achievement School District is no longer new, it needs a different leader, Barbic told senior officials on Thursday, according to multiple people who were informed about his departure plans. They said he also cited health reasons, including the 2014 heart attack that kept him out of work for weeks, for deciding to move on.

Barbic shared his news during a series of meetings and phone calls with ASD staff members on Thursday afternoon and evening, according to multiple people who said they were told not to discuss the change publicly before the district made an official announcement.

Barbic announced the news in an email to supporters early Friday morning.

Barbic’s impending departure comes at a time of transition for the district, which was formed with the ambitious goal of vaulting the state’s weakest schools into the top tier in just a few years. The state is just two weeks away from releasing test scores that he has said would be the first meaningful measure of whether the district is achieving that goal.

State education officials appointed Barbic to lead the ASD on the strength of his record as a charter operator in Texas when they formed the special district in 2012. Under his leadership, the state recruited charter operators to assume management of 22 schools, almost all in Memphis, that had been among the lowest-performing 5 percent in the state.

Unusually, the ASD asks charter operators to improve existing schools, rather than start new ones. The approach has drawn national attention because efforts to make low-performing schools better have stymied many districts.

In his email early Friday, Barbic offered a dim prognosis on that pioneering approach. “As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results,” he wrote. “I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.”

Indeed, as the ASD has matured, it has experienced significant growing pains, including ones related to its student population — and its already formidable task is on the verge of growing more challenging.

Public protest contributed to several charter operators — including YES Prep, the network that Barbic founded in Houston — pulling out of agreements to take over schools under the ASD last year. (Last week, Barbic announced that the district is overhauling the way it involves communities in deciding how their schools should change.)

Meanwhile, test scores in year two suggested that dramatic gains were not underway, although Barbic said it was too soon to tell whether the school overhauls were working and that the extent of poverty in Memphis impeded change. “I think that the depth of the generational poverty and what our kids bring into school every day makes it even harder than we initially expected,” he told Chalkbeat last spring. “We underestimated that.”

The district faced a barrage of legislation designed to curb its growth last year from lawmakers unhappy about its tactics and sluggish academic results. “There’s 22 bills that have been filed right now to either try to kill this thing or pull it apart,” Barbic told lawmakers in February, “and this thing hasn’t even gotten out of the Petri dish.”

Most of those bills died, but two that passed benefited the district by expanding the number of students eligible to attend its schools and by allowing it to charge charter operators to run its schools.

A third bill that passed prohibits the ASD from intervening in low-performing schools where test scores are on the rise. That means the district could face greater challenges in showing test score gains at its schools in the future.

The pressure intensifies amid a looming budget crunch and shifting priorities among state education officials.

Tennessee used more than 10 percent of its $500 million windfall in federal education funds to launch the ASD. Those funds, which arrived through the Race to the Top competition to spur education policy changes, have now disappeared.

So has the commissioner who spearheaded the ASD’s creation and hired Barbic, Kevin Huffman, who resigned late last year. His replacement, Candice McQueen, has said she supports the initiative but wants it to become financially sustainable.

Dramatic test score gains and improved community relations would go farthest in justifying shifting the ASD’s management costs to taxpayers, which could be necessary in the future if its significant philanthropic support wanes. But both of those things have proved difficult to elicit so far.

By exiting the district, Barbic is clearing the way for someone else to take a stab at those persistent challenges. He told ASD officials that he hoped Malika Anderson, the district’s chief portfolio officer, would take over after he leaves, according to people who were part of the information rollout.

McQueen will appoint Barbic’s replacement. She declined to comment on Thursday.

Barbic — whose tenure will slightly exceed the average length for urban superintendents — is not the first ASD official to exit in recent months. Ash Solar, who ran the district’s schools in Memphis, and founding chief of staff Elliot Smalley have also recently moved on.

News of Barbic’s impending departure stirred anxiety about the future of the district on Thursday.

Stephanie Love, a Shelby County school board member and community activist who has publicly criticized the ASD, said she worried that his departure would erode already tenuous community relations.

“Even though I don’t agree with a lot of things the ASD has done, I will say Barbic made himself available for me to talk to him,” said Love, whose son attends an ASD school. “I was always able to let him know exactly how I felt and exactly how the community felt.”

This story has been updated to clarify aspects of the Achievement School District’s finances and to include additional details about recent legislation related to the ASD.

voucher verdict

Do vouchers help students get to college? Two new studies come to different answers

PHOTO: Micaela Watts

The debate around school vouchers has exploded in the last year with the appointment of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. That also means recent studies showing that student achievement drops, at least initially, when students use public dollars to attend private schools have gotten a lot of attention.

But supporters have countered that test scores only say so much about student performance. The real test is how students do over the long term.

Two studies out Friday offer new answers — and some ammunition for both sides.

The research looks at how students from Milwaukee and Washington, D.C. fared after using a voucher to attend private school. It found students in Milwaukee’s voucher program were more likely to attend four-colleges, but not necessarily more likely to actually graduate. In D.C., voucher recipients were no more likely to enroll in college.

Here’s what else the studies tell us.

Disappointing results for D.C. voucher program

The D.C. analysis, conducted by Matt Chingos of the Urban Institute, found that 43 percent of students who won a voucher enrolled in college within two years of graduating high school. That’s 3 percentage points lower than similar students who lost the lottery, though the difference was not statistically significant.

The research relied on that random lottery for allocating vouchers in the first two years of the program. This meant the study could confidently show that any difference between lottery winners and losers was caused by the program, which was created in 2004 and has been a source of controversy ever since.

The study notes that because the sample size of students is fairly small, it can’t rule out the possibility that the program either boosted or hurt college attendance to some degree.

The results are surprising in light of past evidence that the first groups of D.C. voucher participants were more likely to graduate high school and scored higher on reading tests. (A more recent study on the program, focusing on students who participated in later years, found that it caused substantial drops in math test scores.)

Milwaukee voucher recipients more likely to attend — but not necessarily graduate — college

The Milwaukee study offers a more positive story for voucher advocates.

Voucher students were generally more likely to enroll in college, particularly four-year universities, than students with similar test scores from the same neighborhood who were not participating in the program in 2006. For instance, among students who used a voucher in elementary or middle school, 47 percent enrolled in college, compared to 43 percent of similar students.

When it came to actually completing college, though, the results were less clear. The researchers estimated that voucher recipients had a small edge — 1 or 2 percentage points — but the difference was not statistically significant.

MPCP is the Milwaukee voucher program; MPS is Milwaukee Public Schools

In contrast to the D.C. study, the Milwaukee researchers — Patrick Wolf, John Witte, and Brian Kisida — weren’t able to use a random lottery, meaning the results are less definitive. And although the researchers try to make apples-to-apples comparisons, the estimates may be skewed if more motivated families, or students who were struggling in public schools, used a voucher.

The latest results are consistent with a previous Milwaukee study by some of the same researchers. It’s also similar to a recent Florida study suggesting that vouchers led to increases in two-year college enrollment, but had little or no effect on whether students earned a degree.

(Both the Milwaukee and D.C. studies were funded by a number of groups that support school choice, including the Oberndorf Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Walton is also a funder of Chalkbeat.)

What we still don’t know

Like the research before it, these studies won’t come close to ending the debate about school vouchers. Opponents will likely highlight the results in D.C. and the inconsistent impact on college completion in Milwaukee. School choice advocates will point to other parts of the Milwaukee study, and the fact that the D.C. voucher programs appeared to keep pace with public schools while spending less per student.

Meanwhile, these studies tell us most about these programs as they existed more than a decade ago. That’s the disadvantage of studies like these of longer-run effects, even as they provide more information about metrics more important to most policymakers and parents than test scores.

“The problem with these long-term studies is that these are the right outcomes to look at, but by the time we know it, it’s of more questionable relevance,” Chingos said.

Future of Schools

Mike Feinberg, KIPP co-founder, fired after misconduct investigation

PHOTO: Photo by Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty Images

Mike Feinberg, the co-founder of the KIPP charter network, has been fired after an investigation into sexual misconduct, its leaders announced Thursday.

KIPP found “credible evidence” connected to allegations that Feinberg abused a student in the late 1990s, according to a letter sent to students and staff. Feinberg denies the allegations.

“We recognize this news will come as a shock to many in the KIPP Team and Family as we struggle to reconcile Mr. Feinberg’s 24 years of significant contributions with the findings of this investigation,” the letter says.

It’s a stunning move at one of the country’s best-known charter school organizations — and one where Feinberg has been in a leadership role for more than two decades. Feinberg started KIPP along with Dave Levin in Houston in 1994, and Levin brought the model to New York City the next year. The network became known for its “no excuses” model of strict discipline and attention to academic performance.

KIPP says it first heard the allegation last spring. The network eventually hired the law firm WilmerHale to conduct an external investigation, which found evidence that Feinberg had sexually harassed two adults, both alums of the school who were then employed by KIPP in Houston, the network said.

“In light of the nature of the allegations and the passage of time, critical facts about these events may never be conclusively determined. What is clear, however, is that, at a minimum, Mr. Feinberg put himself into situations where his conduct could be seriously misconstrued,” KIPP wrote in the letter, signed by CEO Richard Barth and KIPP’s Houston leader, Sehba Ali.

Feinberg’s lawyer, Chris Tritico, told the Houston Chronicle that Feinberg had not been fully informed about the allegations against him.

“The treatment he received today from the board that he put in place is wrong, and it’s not what someone who has made the contributions he’s made deserves,” Tritico said.

Read KIPP’s full letter here.