We have had misgivings about the Achievement School District from the beginning. Conservatives bemoaned the loss of local control. For others, it was the lack of resources and not understanding the underpinnings of poverty that concerned policymakers. Parents called the ASD school takeover process a “scam.” However, desperate times drive desperate measures. The ASD was created in 2010 as part of Tennessee’s Race to the Top plan.
Tennessee enacted the ASD to much national fanfare. It’s been downhill ever since. In the ASD, we created false and misleading hope for truly the most vulnerable of children. These children will not discover the promise of the future without quality education. Now they are seemingly abandoned. As far back as 2017, Gary Henry, then a Vanderbilt University researcher, found in his research of the ASD that there was no data to support that the program was helping students. ASD schools were less effective than district-run schools. Currently, across all subjects, less than ten percent of students in the ASD are meeting state academic standards when last measured. The absentee rate is also roughly 30 percent.
While much of the focus has been on the charter schools in the ASD, the four state-run schools of the ASD have been largely under the radar. These are schools that should have been converted to charter schools, but trying to implement too much, too fast, left the state without a charter operator for these schools. This means that while charters are subject to closure, scrutiny, data reporting, and performance management, the state does not have to report the performance of these schools to anyone, leaving no accountability and oversite to ensure children are learning. It reminds us why President Ronald Reagan once proclaimed that the most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
If someone were to look behind the curtain of these state-run schools, they would find higher than usual teacher and principal turnover while the Shelby County schools grades 1-3 outperform these schools by double digits. In other words, like most of the ASD schools, they aren’t doing much better - and in some cases worse – than the district schools.
The TN Department of Education has not demonstrated a sustained commitment by investing the time and resources necessary to create lasting change in their four state-run schools. In a recent two-day visit to Memphis, Commissioner Schwinn visited an ASD charter school and a municipal school, but not her own state-run schools. This isn’t unusual – she’s abnormally hands off of the ASD, but during a pandemic, we would think she would want to see the state schools for herself, the children, and the safety protocols she is directly responsible for. However, she would have only been only able to visit two or her schools, as two still are not open.
That’s right - as Governor Lee stands at podiums and insists that it’s safe for students to return to school, at least two of his own schools have yet to open. Frayser and Corning pushed back the start of the school year to September 2nd and then it will be virtual, their Facebook pages say, until Sept. 14, 2020. It seems to conflict with the objective of the state. Even the devices were not handed out until Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, 2020. These students are falling through the cracks, and nobody at the state notices it? We have to do better, and I am certain local control is preferential to state control at this point.
Not opening a state-operated school in a pandemic is the least of the issues in the ASD. A search firm was hired to identify a new leader, perhaps someone with actual turnaround experience, and then abruptly halted. The state hosted multiple community meetings last spring with promises of hiring a leader, closing the ASD low-performing charters, and returning the state-run schools back to their district – but none of this has come to fruition, leaving most of Memphis to wonder if the Commissioner will at least follow her own laws for the closure of its low-performing charter schools. All of this, however, would take work, commitment, and actual execution of promises made. This cannot be accomplished by the Department’s infamous toolkits, no more than the toolkits have been adequate responses to a pandemic.
In 2020, the Tennessee General Assembly wisely passed Public Chapter 777. Once enacted, this will require the Commissioner to develop a transition plan to plan the return, no earlier than the 2024-2025 school year, of schools in the ASD to the LEAs from which the schools were removed. It will also require the Commissioner to submit the plan to the education committees of the Senate and House by Jan. 1, 2021. The new law clarifies that a school that has been placed in the ASD must remain in the ASD until the school is authorized to return to its LEA according to the transition plan. The state should accelerate that process and immediately end the failed ASD. The Tennessee House Education Committee should preview that plan in their Summer Study meeting on September 22nd and 23rd this month. Surely, the failure to reopen these schools, in person, virtually, or by hybrid - and the delay in getting devices - falls under the criteria for the purpose of the Summer Study meeting.
To be fair, leadership is hard, and Commissioners are easy targets for all sorts of criticism. We should not look at the personality, but rather look at the work. Tennesseans have always believed that if we faced our problems and worked at them, they could be resolved. Herein is the critical point: In the case of Penny Schwinn’s leadership in Tennessee, there is nothing to actually show for the work. No new policies, no initiatives to support the learning of children, no newly forged bridges or support to marginalized or high-risk populations…nothing. Most stakeholders and policymakers feel completely left out of the process. Education impacts successes in all other policy areas, and we need many voices to be heard. For Governor Lee, who boldly proclaimed he wanted to be the “education Governor”– we are still waiting in public education.
Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee