As Tennessee gives its turnaround district a hard look, fates of other takeover districts show struggles aren’t unique

Tennessee’s achievement district came out of the gates strong in 2012 with support from national charter networks and state leadership.

Taking its cues from the successful turnaround of schools in New Orleans, Tennessee’s Achievement School District was a model for other districts, including in Nevada, North Carolina, and Mississippi.

But seven years later, Tennessee’s low-performing students have not seen large gains. Nevada has closed its turnaround district, and the other two states are struggling to get off the ground.

The difficulties faced by turnaround districts are complex and often not obvious. Districts are at the mercy of changing political and policy forces. The public is not always happy to see outside companies take over their local schools. Also, experts say turnaround districts have not closed underperforming charter schools.

In contrast, New Orleans closed charter schools that weren’t rising to the challenge of transforming underperforming schools and brought in new operators – which the Tennessee district and others have yet to do, said Douglas Harris, Tulane Professor of Economics and founder of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans.

“Other districts aren’t doing that from what I’ve seen, and are missing a key piece of this work as a result,” Harris said.

Penny Schwinn, Tennessee’s new education commissioner, has so far offered few details on what she would want out of the 30-school district other than saying she would hold charter schools more accountable to reaching goals. She has called the district’s lagging results a “cause for concern.”

The achievement district in Tennessee started with high hopes after it garnered national attention and high-profile hires when it first launched in 2012. National charter operators Green Dot Public Schools and KIPP were early sign-ons.

GRAD Academy students work on a writing assignment during an African-American history class. The South Memphis charter school shuttered in 2018. (Caroline Bauman)

But Texas-based YES Prep Public Schools pulled out of running a school in 2015. Within the last year, Project Grad USA, also based in Texas, closed its school, and Aspire Public Schools, out of California, announced it would hand over its operations to a new, local charter organization.

Nevada’s district also struggled to attract outside charter operators and faced intense pushback from the communities it sought to serve. Even though Nevada closed its turnaround district, its four charter schools will continue operating under a state charter school authority.

“There was not a significant number of restart operators who were interested,” said Rebecca Feiden who was the executive director of Nevada’s achievement district. She now runs the state’s charter school authority, which oversees 53 schools.

North Carolina’s district had a similar problem when only two charter operators applied to run its first school. The state’s Innovative School District, which took over an elementary school in 2018, was designed to turn around chronically low-performing schools by allowing an outside organization to operate the school for five years.

Harris said Louisiana, which established its recovery district after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, was the first to focus on recruiting national charter operators and gained an advantage as a result.

“The school reform community nationally rallied around this and it became a big deal to be here,” Harris said of New Orleans. “It was like the Silicon Valley of school reform.”

Harris said that what the New Orleans and Tennessee districts did have going for them was rare bipartisan support, despite turnover in the governor’s offices and state legislatures.

But the political support for the Tennessee achievement district could be waning. After the district’s high profile leader Sharon Griffin left this month, some state lawmakers are calling for hearings on its future.

RELATED: Under growing tension, heralded turnaround leader Sharon Griffin resigns as head of achievement district

Nevada’s story shows how quickly political forces can shift on state-run education programs.

Earlier this year, Nevada lawmakers voted to shut down their state’s Achievement School District, which was only 2 years old and made up of four charter schools.

“School turnaround is really hard work,” said Feiden. “Ultimately, legislators decided … charter restarts were not an avenue they wanted an option for. They wanted to preserve existing schools.”

Similarly, North Carolina’s achievement district was set to take over its second school, but state lawmakers passed legislation allowing the school to be revived by its own district instead. Mississippi’s initial plan was to explore a model that looked like Tennessee’s. But instead, lawmakers created a district in 2016 that looks little like it. Mississippi takes over entire districts, not individual schools, and tasks a state agency with running them, not charter operators.

Increasingly, it is getting more difficult for politicians and education leaders in Tennessee and other states to support turnaround districts that haven’t lived up to academic promises, said Joshua Glazer, a professor at George Washington University who has studied charter takeovers in Tennessee.

“For the ASD to survive politically, it needs its charter school providers to get the results that will give the system of school takeovers legitimacy,” Glazer said. “The district becomes politically very vulnerable if they don’t achieve those results – and they haven’t yet.”

RELATED: School-level test scores are in for the Achievement School District. And they’re bleak.

Since 2016, the Tennessee district hasn’t recruited a new outside charter organization or taken over a new school. Community pushback meant districts like Tennessee struggled to recruit national charter operators.

“It was scary for a lot of folks I think when the ASD first came to Memphis,” said Eligah Sledge, a parent of students enrolled in schools in Tennessee’s achievement district.

“It was like, who are these people coming in? Do they understand Memphis? Will they care enough to stay? There was so much pushback at first, because your school down the block is so important to you and you don’t know these people,” Sledge said.

North Carolina’s district was also met with skepticism from some community members.

Memphis Lift advocates talk about their mission in 2015 against the backdrop of signs protesting the state’s Achievement School District. (Caroline Bauman)

In a 2018 column in the Charlotte Observer, local teacher Kay McSpadden wrote: “It didn’t work in Louisiana, Tennessee, or Michigan – taking local control from low-performing school districts and creating special ‘turnaround’ districts operated by charter companies.”

McSpadden went on to argue that fixing North Carolina’s failing schools shouldn’t be a change in governance, but rather a change in resources to address the effects on students living in poverty, such as high absenteeism rates and trauma experienced outside of the classroom.

“Good luck to Southside-Ashpole Elementary, but unless ISD makes poverty a focus of its efforts, the iceberg will sink that ship,” McSpadden said in her column titled, “Education’s newest ‘innovation’ in poor schools is just moving chairs on the Titanic.”

Other districts also have seen strong community pushback to state control and to bringing in outside organizations to run local schools. In Tennessee, all of the state-run schools are in Memphis and Nashville, which is typical of achievement districts that usually take over schools in high-poverty neighborhoods with a majority of black and brown students

Glazer said some states are moving to more collaborative models with local districts, such as the Partnership Zone in Tennessee’s Hamilton County, in part to avoid the perception of an aggressive takeover of communities with complex racial and political pasts.

“The racial dynamics are also very complicated and often not talked about as much as they should be,” Glazer said. “States know they need to do something, yet they need to intervene in a way that’s not perceived as a hostile takeover, because the tremendous backlash when that happens is not helpful.”