Tennessee is making big changes to the way it addresses its lowest-performing schools, with big implications for its pioneering state turnaround district — and for the local urban districts where struggling schools are concentrated.

The state’s Achievement School District has wielded significant power in Tennessee since its launch in 2012, wresting control of 33 schools from local districts, recruiting charter operators to turn them around, and generating rancorous debate in the process. The school improvement model has been closely watched across the nation and is being emulated in states such as Nevada and North Carolina.

But under changes prompted by a new federal education law, Tennessee’s ASD would have less flexibility over which schools it can take over, while local districts would have more time to turn around the schools themselves. State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen estimated Monday that, under the new plan, at least 12 schools would be eligible for state takeover in the 2017-18 school year, down from 18 in 2015.

Memphis would be the city most impacted since it’s home to the greatest number of “priority schools” — those in the state’s bottom 5 percent — as well as nearly all of the ASD’s schools.

Under the new federal education law called the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, Tennessee must give local districts the opportunity to improve priority schools on their own before swooping in with its most rigorous intervention: ASD takeover.

The state’s takeover of neighborhood schools has been especially contentious in Memphis, particularly after a 2015 Vanderbilt University study suggested that students at ASD schools are performing mostly at the same low levels that they would have had they remained with their local district.

The State Department of Education unveiled a preview of its proposed plan for ESSA last week, which touches on issues like accountability, school counselors, and teacher preparation, in addition to school improvement. State officials will gather feedback on the draft during town hall meetings in Memphis on Wednesday and in Nashville on Thursday, and submit Tennessee’s final plan to the U.S. Department of Education next spring.

Here’s what we know about the school improvement part of the plan:

What will happen to priority schools, and which ones will be eligible for ASD takeover?

Tennessee’s proposed plan would separate the state’s priority list into three tracks.

Schools will be on the first track if they meet two conditions:

  • They are on at least one of the previous priority lists, in 2012 and 2014, as well as the 2017 priority list coming out this summer;
  • They have had the same intervention, like becoming part of the district’s innovation zone, for three or more years without improvement according to criteria to be set by the state, or have had no intervention at all.

The second track will consist of schools on the 2017 list and at least one earlier list, but that have high growth scores. These schools will have until 2020, when the state will release the next priority list, to continue their turnaround work without the possibility of ASD intervention.

The third track will consist of schools on the priority list for the first time in 2017. They will enter an unprecedented partnership with the state, working to draft and implement a turnaround plan based on national research and evidence. The hope is that by 2020, the plan will have worked, and they will be off of the priority list.

Though districts will have more power in school turnaround, McQueen emphasizes that the state will be an active partner.

“This is not the district on its own,” she said. “There would be a great deal of state partnership in terms of planning, and state criteria to be met.”

What will happen to low-performing schools already in the ASD?

McQueen said she hears that question a lot from local district leaders but doesn’t have an answer for them yet. She said the state is working to address the issue, which was the topic of a state legislative hearing this summer.

The question is important because the ASD’s effect on schools has been uneven. Many of the ASD’s first schools, taken from local districts in 2012, are still in the bottom 5 percent, according to the most recently available test scores.

Currently, only the ASD has authority over its own schools. Under state law, if an ASD charter operator underperforms for three consecutive years, the state-run district can replace them with a higher-performing operator.

“Of course, you can’t do that indefinitely, so we will be making clear exit criteria as well,” McQueen said. “Some of this will be evolving, based on what we learn about the schools.”

How will 2017’s priority list be different than in years past?

The state’s priority list has been based on a ranking of schools by the percentage of students who passed end-of-year tests for math, English and science. But under Tennessee’s proposed plan, the state wants to take growth into account.

That way, “you’re not doomed to be a priority school just because you’re in the bottom 5 percent according to achievement,” said Nakia Towns, assistant state commissioner of research.

Because of a 2015 state law, priority schools will also get a new label: F. Beginning next fall, all Tennessee schools will be assigned a letter grade based on several criteria. As the lowest performing schools, priority schools will receive automatic Fs.

Some educators worry that the school grading system, which was not endorsed by the State Department of Education, might further stigmatize schools that already are struggling. State officials hope to offset that by giving priority schools more resources and support through direct funding and competitive grants.

“We realize it’s often the poorest communities who will have schools with the lowest grade — but who will also need those resources,” Towns said.