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VOL. 41 | NO. 16 | Friday, April 21, 2017

State Rep. rips Achievement School District for hiring felon

By Sam Stockard

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State Rep. Antonio Parkinson is renewing his call for an end to the Achievement School District amid revelations a charter school operator hired a convicted felon to run Lester Prep in Memphis.

State officials are playing off the criticism, though, saying it is more of the same from Parkinson and that the ASD will remain a big part of its effort to bolster struggling schools.

“It appears that the ASD is attempting to create a new norm for what is acceptable for our most vulnerable school population’s children and their parents,” Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, says in a statement.

“This is not the norm and will not ever be accepted for our children. This type of decision would never happen in non-minority schools, nor would it be accepted. I can all but guarantee that no ASD leader, the governor nor the commissioner of education would accept this for their own children. If it’s not good enough for theirs, it’s not good enough for ours.”

Parkinson made the statement in the wake of news reports showing Capstone Education Group hired Koai Matthews to run Lester Prep in Binghamton even though it knew he pleaded guilty to conspiracy and counterfeiting in 2005 after passing fake $100 bills. The charter operator did not notify the Achievement School District of problems in Matthews’ past, leading ASD to review charter school policies and procedures, according to reports, yet Matthews is to stay on the job.

Parkinson, who criticized ASD previously for lack of oversight and failure to move schools out of the state’s bottom 5 percent, is asking Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to take several steps:

•Establish a date to close the Achievement School District

•Stop school takeovers by the ASD

•Move all schools under the ASD back to the local education agency when a contract expires or at the end of five years of operation, whichever comes first

•Allow Innovation Zone models to be used for Priority schools, those in the bottom 5 percent of performance, that need intervention

•Use the Shelby County iZone program as the model for Priority schools statewide

The state set up the Achievement School District in 2011 to take over the operation of schools in the state’s bottom percent academically and move them into the upper echelon. Thirty-three of them are in Memphis, and most of those are run by charter operators, while a handful are overseen by Shelby County Schools, which set up the iZone to improve their performance.

Not only does Parkinson contend ASD is failing to achieve the goal of moving schools out of the bottom tier into the top 25 percent in Tennessee, he points out it is running into several other problems, including a state Comptroller report showing it used funds for the purchase of liquor and expensive parties. Furthermore, he notes, critics accuse the ASD of expanding grades unlawfully, granting schools to individuals and operators with no history of school operations and allowing entities with sub-par performance to expand and operate new schools.

Parkinson says he hopes the state will act on those requests without going through the Legislature. If not, though, he says he will draft legislation in 2018 to put them into effect.

Based on a statement by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, the state isn’t prepared to dismantle or phase out the ASD.

“The ASD is one way that our state has been able to serve our students who are in our persistently lowest achieving schools, and it remains a key component of the department’s comprehensive school improvement work,” McQueen says in a statement responding to questions from the Memphis Daily News.

The Every Student Succeeds Act is replacing the federal No Child Left Behind, and the state and ASD expect it to be part of new policies.

“Under the new federal education law, we have renewed and clarified the role of the ASD, and as our new school improvement continuum begins this summer, we see this as a reset moment to ensure that the ASD best serves the students who most need support. As part of this moment, we are re-examining licensure requirements, hiring practices and policies and trainings,” McQueen says.

ESSA legislation recently passed by the General Assembly makes it clear ASD will keep playing a “significant” role in turning the state’s lowest-performing schools in the right direction, says Bobby White, chief of external affairs for ASD.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that my friend Rep. Parkinson has held more press conferences criticizing the ASD than has made visits to ASD schools in his own district despite our invitations,” White says. “We remain committed to improvement in every way.”

However, another vocal opponent of the ASD, Shelby County School Board member Stephanie Love calls the latest development “the most egregious slap in the face” so far to the public school system.

“How much do we have to put up with coming from the ASD?” she says in the statement. “How many more times will the state cover for this failed experiment? Traditional public schools would never be able to get away with half of the issues the ASD has gotten away with.”

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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