Why Shelby County’s school board wants to kick out the ASD — and probably can’t

Venting its frustration over the Achievement School District’s continued expansion in Memphis despite questionable results, Shelby County’s school board called this week for a moratorium on the state-run district’s growth until it shows “consistent progress in improving student academic achievement.”

But in directing Superintendent Dorsey Hopson to explore a strategy to institute a moratorium, school board members have given the district’s chief administrator a tall order.

That’s because state law gives the ASD authority to take control of the state’s lowest-performing schools, removing them from local district control to implement turnaround strategies. That usually means assigning the schools to nonprofit charter operators charged with making major changes designed to generate dramatic improvement.

The problem is that schools taken over by the ASD have not been improving quickly — if at all, according to Vanderbilt researchers who released a report last week suggesting that the city’s worst schools would be better off in Shelby County’s Innovation Zone than in the ASD.

Days later, ASD leaders announced that the state would take over four more Shelby County schools after a months-long process of community engagement with those school communities.

Board member Stephanie Love, who submitted the moratorium resolution approved unanimously by the board on Tuesday, said last week that she was more committed than ever to halting ASD expansion in Memphis.

“As a school board member, as a woman, as a mother, I will spend my days making sure that somebody stands up for our children — whether it be revolution, policy, lawsuits, whatever!” Love told Chalkbeat.

But for now, the ASD’s expansion plans are out of the control of the board — and Hopson.

Tennessee law clearly gives the ASD authority to take over eligible “priority” schools that are in the state’s bottom 5 percent, says Ashley Ball, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Education. That law, approved by legislature in 2010 as part of the state’s application to win a half billion dollars in federal Race to the Top money, is a key component of Tennessee’s strategy for improving low-performing schools.

“A local district does not have the authority to issue a moratorium but can certainly work to improve their schools to avoid ASD eligibility,” Ball said Thursday.

Ball added that the state is confident in the ASD’s ability to inspire improvement. “The ASD is one important lever to reach our students that are farthest behind,” she said. “It has also been a catalyst, sparking healthy competition that is raising the floor for all Tennessee students.”

ASD officials have urged patience in turning the trajectory on student test scores, pointing out that the Vanderbilt study said it can take several years to conclude which reforms are successful, and which are not.

State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen also took the long view last week when the district announced its latest expansion. “The ASD is an important part of the state’s strategy to make sure we are providing interventions and appropriate support mechanisms to support all schools in the bottom 5 percent,” said McQueen, adding that the state also supports the turnaround work of Shelby County’s iZone.

Love’s resolution did not stop with an ASD moratorium. She called on Hopson to develop a comprehensive short-term strategic plan to address numerous challenges faced by the state’s largest public school district, including budget shortfalls, enrollment declines, adapting to changing state-mandated academic standards, and the high rate of poverty among its students.

Part of the enrollment and budgetary challenges are “due to the loss of students to ASD schools and charter schools,” the resolution said.

The school board for the cash-strapped district sued the state in August, saying that Tennessee isn’t adequately funding its schools, especially for its most vulnerable children.

Though the school board is powerless to halt the ASD’s expansion, state representatives might not be when the legislature reconvenes next month.

Last year, legislators filed 22 bills aimed at limiting the ASD’s authority, including one that would have totally scrapped the district. Most didn’t gain traction, but legislators in Memphis have been empathetic to frustrations expressed this fall by parents, teachers and local officials about the ASD’s continued expansion. State Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis) already has pledged to file legislation that would curtail the ASD’s growth.