Tennessee governor wants ways to keep some turnaround schools under state oversight after 10 years

Man in a suit bends down to talk to six elementary students lined up outside a room.
Gov. Bill Lee speaks with students at KIPP Antioch College Prep on Oct. 1, 2019. The Nashville school is one of four state-authorized charters moving this year under the oversight of the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission, which Lee helped to create through a 2019 law. (Courtesy of KIPP Nashville)

When Tennessee started taking over low-performing schools and matching most with charter operators in 2012, the plan was to return the schools to their home districts when they improved in an estimated five years.

Now Gov. Bill Lee is proposing other options for schools that have remained in the state’s turnaround program for nearly 10 years — most notably to let some of the higher-performing ones move from one state-run district to another.

Under legislation introduced this week, Lee proposed letting some charter schools bypass their original district when leaving Tennessee’s Achievement School District, also known as the ASD. Instead, they could apply to move directly to the state’s new charter school commission, which the governor helped to create.

The bill also would let charter operators seek to return schools to their original districts and apply for new charter contracts, which school boards could accept or reject. 

A third option allows the schools to remain in the ASD, if at least 60% of their families want to stay.

The legislation gives the most detailed blueprint yet for the future of 27 schools and more than 9,000 students in Tennessee’s turnaround district. The initiative is the state’s most intense model for intervening in chronically underperforming schools, but academic gains have been spotty since it launched using a portfolio of charter operators.

Except for schools where most families support staying, the proposal would require schools to exit the ASD after 10 years — or sooner if they’ve stayed off Tennessee’s list of its 5% of lowest-performing schools for two three-year cycles. Tennessee’s education commissioner also could OK an early exit based on various performance data.

The Achievement School District, which so far has only taken over schools in Memphis and Nashville, was never intended to keep the schools longer than 10 years.

“When the ASD began, the focus was on taking over schools — not on how those schools should transition out of the district someday. This bill offers clarity,” Rep. Mark White said after the measure cleared its first hurdle in the House on Tuesday.

White, a Memphis Republican, is shepherding the proposal for the governor, a charter advocate who championed a 2019 state law creating the charter commission with the charge of strengthening Tennessee’s sector of the independently operated and taxpayer-financed public schools.

If the ASD bill passes, the commission’s role will expand, and its portfolio of charter schools is likely to grow. (The entity currently oversees three schools in Nashville and one in Memphis.) For now, the commission’s authority is limited as an appellate authorizer of charter organizations deemed to be high quality but rejected by local school boards. 

But whether the new commission has the capacity to take on turnaround schools is a big concern for Gini Pupo-Walker, board member for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools and leader of The Education Trust in Tennessee.

“It’s one thing to be an appellate authorizer. It’s quite another to oversee a portfolio of schools that have been chronically underperforming for possibly generations,” she said.

Tess Stovall, the commission’s executive director, said the nine-member board and her staff “will be prepared to take on that additional responsibility” if the legislature decides to expand the body’s role.

Tennessee leaders have been talking for years about how to exit ASD schools that haven’t met early improvement goals acknowledged now as too lofty. But because the transition involves everything from people and property to finances and governance, the state has found it almost as hard to transition schools out of the ASD as it was to take them over.

Last summer, after the pandemic sidelined the state education department’s first proposal, the legislature demanded a more detailed transition plan to consider this year before ASD charter contracts begin to expire in 2022.

Early reviews of the resulting legislation are mixed. Several charter operators and advocates said they were pleased overall, while local district officials had more questions than comments.

“I think the structure and the vision of the transition is exactly right,” said Bob Nardo, founder and executive director of Libertas School in Memphis, whose contract with the ASD expires in 2025. “It creates options for exiting, but it ties those options to performance.”

White said the proposal gives higher-performing schools the option of transitioning directly to the new state commission if their application is approved by that body.

“Some of them are doing well and don’t want to go back to the [local district], White said. “They’re afraid they’ll get closed down.”

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools did not respond to questions about the bill, while a spokesman for Metro Nashville’s district declined to comment. But multiple sources said district leaders have serious concerns about provisions that appear to chip away at local control of neighborhood schools.

Much of the bill aims to address the thorny issue of property if a charter school moves from the ASD to the new state commission. Operators that have been leasing county-owned school buildings for free could pay to lease the campus for at least three more years or purchase it at or below fair market value, minus whatever they’ve invested to repair or improve the property.

“For schools to transition, obviously having a short-term period by which facilities could continue to be leased or sold to them by the school district is important for the stability for students and families,” said Charlie Bufalino, assistant commissioner of policy and legislative affairs for the state education department.

But it’s uncertain if that plan would run contrary to local government requirements for selling property.

The bill is scheduled to go before two more legislative committees next week.

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