Is state takeover of troubled schools a $100M failure?

Friday, January 08, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 2

Armed with a Vanderbilt University study showing Shelby County schools that were taken over by the state’s Achievement School District are showing little to no improvement, Memphis legislators are nearly ready to kill the experiment.

“The nuclear option is we get legislation prepared, and we shut the ASD down. That’s the nuclear option,” state Rep. Antonio Parkinson says.

“For those people who don’t think that’s an option, it’s an election year, and I don’t know how any of us can justify going to our constituents and saying we continue to pump $100 million into a failed policy.”

Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, made his message public during a recent press conference held by the General Assembly’s Black Caucus in Nashville, with backing by the Democratic Caucus.

The group, led by chairwoman state Rep. Brenda Gilmore of Nashville, stopped short of calling for abolition of the Achievement School District this year, instead saying it needs to hold up on taking over more schools and putting intensive work into those at the bottom.

“The mission of ASD was to move these low-performing schools in the bottom 5 percent to the top 25 percent in five years. Has the ASD been effective in doing that? The simple answer is no,” Gilmore explains.

Children being affected are mainly minorities and impoverished, she points out, but argues this is not a “black and white issue.” Shelby County Schools has 116,059 students, 79.8 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged and 12.9 percent have disabilities.

Though this has been brewing almost since the state district was set up, the legislators were spurred to action by ASD’s move to take over four more Shelby County schools in early December, even after the Vanderbilt study showed ASD-run schools are making negligible gains compared to Innovation Zone (iZone) schools – those targeted as failing but allowed to operate under local school districts with more autonomy to make reforms.

“What we’re asking the ASD to do is stand down on your own because you saw the report, we saw the report, we know what’s in the report. Let’s fix it to make it work for our children, not against our children,” Parkinson says.

Parkinson contends the state is taking a heavy-handed approach in Memphis and Shelby County (now a unified school district), where 27 of the state’s 29 ASD schools are run either by ASD itself or charter operators. Metro Nashville has the other two.

School systems in Hamilton and Knox counties, on the other hand, are given a “pat on the back” and the opportunity to rebuild their failing or Priority [the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in Tennessee in terms of academic achievement] schools without state intervention, Parkinson says.

Rep. Joe Towns Jr. joins Parkinson in pointing out their Memphis constituents are “dissatisfied” with the ASD policy and the latest decision to take over four more schools.

“What we cannot afford to do is utilize the children as another experiment, because even one year of unproductivity is going to impact our children,” Towns says.

Incoming ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson states on the agency’s website the four Shelby County schools were taken by ASD and will be run by charters for 2016-17 only after extensive discussion by parents, educators and other community members.

Scholar Academies will run Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary School and Raleigh-Egypt Middle School while Green Dot Public Schools will operate Hillcrest High School and Kirby Middle School.

Her statement doesn’t quite mesh with claims by Neighborhood Advisory Council members who at a recent press conference said they were largely ignored during the process. Some felt it was sham, raising credibility problems for ASD in Memphis.

Harsh criticism

Shelby County School Board member Stephanie Love, who recently persuaded the board to pass a resolution for a moratorium on ASD expansion in Shelby County, says she doesn’t trust ASD.

“They don’t want to be held accountable. They don’t want to be transparent,” says Love, a first-term board member.

She wants the Shelby County legislative delegation to ask Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to rescind the latest ASD decision on those four schools.

She contends former ASD Superintendent Chris Baric promised to give charter operators a certain number of schools in Memphis and had to make good on the promise. (Baric is no longer with the district.)

Unafraid to sound off, Love adds, “It sounds like a slave trade to me.”

“I’m not going to say that we didn’t need help. But what I will say is the state of Tennessee had an obligation, and they failed. And instead of them doing what needed to be done and giving resources to the schools, they created a whole new school district, which has taken from the Shelby County school system,” Love says.

“So now we have to do more with less, because we have to take every and any child who comes through our door, whether they be crippled, blind or whatever. We still have to take them.”

As is often the case, the debate comes down to money.

Love adds the state can hardly tell Shelby County Schools how to manage its system when it isn’t properly funding the Basic Education Program, Tennessee’s funding formula for public schools.

“That’s one of the reasons Shelby County is suing the state now,” she says. Hamilton County Schools and six other systems in southeast Tennessee filed suit against the state as well.

Shelby’s per-pupil expenditure is $11,221, among the highest in the state. Before the Memphis-Shelby merger, per-pupil expenditures were $11,250 for Memphis City Schools and $9,318 for Shelby County.

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons of Nashville, who stood with members of the Black Caucus during their press conference, believes funding, or lack thereof, lies at the heart of the problem.

“Are we going to prioritize our public schools and give them the money they need to succeed and the autonomy they need to succeed or are we going to continue to pump money in large quantities into a system that’s showing marginal effects at best?” the Nashville Democrat asks.

The Legislature needs to take a closer look at school funding during the upcoming budget process, Clemmons says.

Gilmore adds that other bills are likely to be sponsored dealing with this situation.

State’s response

ASD Superintendent Anderson tries to tone down the argument in her response to the Black Caucus press conference, saying in a statement they have “a shared vision – to improve the educational and life outcomes for students in Priority schools, the majority of whom are black.”

Priority schools are starting to show major progress after “languishing” at the bottom of Tennessee’s performance charts, she points out.

Because of “collective” efforts of ASD and iZones, children in Priority schools are learning four times faster than their peers statewide, Anderson says, increasing the bar for defining a Priority school by nearly 10 percentage points.

Anderson notes the Vanderbilt study says it’s too early to make “conclusive findings” about ASD’s results, but she says the district has “overwhelming evidence” showing it is the catalyst for statewide progress.

Second- and third-year ASD schools showed the highest possible growth rates in value-added assessments last year, and ASD schools “outpaced” state and Shelby County iZone schools in math and science, according to her statement.

ASD has “positive relationships” with the General Assembly and Black Caucus, Anderson says, and she says she hopes to strengthen those as the incoming leader.

Gov. Haslam’s spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals says he is “committed to closing achievement gaps” and providing access to a great education regardless of where children live.

“One thing we know is that what we were doing before wasn’t working. The ASD is one of multiple strategies to reach students in our lowest performing schools,” Donnals notes.

“We have seen schools perform better the longer they’re in the ASD, and we’ve also seen changes to the way districts think about their lowest-performing schools.”

It is clear, though, based on legislation, Haslam is a proponent of inserting charter operators into the state’s poorest performing systems, as well as initiating voucher programs to send students to private schools – at least on a limited level starting out.

Ulterior motive?

Many legislators and teachers across Tennessee say Haslam and Republican leaders are bent on turning public schools over to the private sector.

Rep. Towns points out a certain number of schools will always be in the bottom 5 percent of performance, giving ASD an opportunity to assert control and turn them over to charter operators.

“Are we trying to take over the schools in a backdoor approach? To me there’s something sinister about it, because every year there’s going to be a 5 percent,” he says. “When does it stop?”

Towns says ASD should never have total control of schools, and when Priority schools start to improve they should be returned to their district.

Love takes an even more pointed approach, saying she thinks certain people in Tennessee want public education to be “100 percent privatized, but they don’t want to come out and say it.

“My thing is if that’s the agenda, let us know.”

She likens the situation with charter schools to a marriage going bad.

“How do you say the marriage is not working, so you go out and find a mistress and then you show your mistress to everybody and begin to neglect your wife?” she asks.

“We were their responsibility first, and they went out and created a whole new school district, and they’re pretty much pushing us to the side.”

Parkinson says in the last two years Priority schools showing the greatest needs have been skipped over while those getting ready to come out of the bottom 5 percent have gotten ASD’s attention.

“If it’s not about education, it’s about something else, making money or something else,” he says. “That has caused a real issue for us in regard to the Achievement School District.”

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