A new proposal being pushed through the Tennessee House Education Committee is the latest saga in the long effort to takeover schools through privatization. In order to accomplish this, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the state would create the Achievement School District 2.0. The ASD has been the embattled mostly charter run district, which operates a majority of its schools in Memphis and Nashville; has been plagued by multiple executive directors; constant teacher turnover; funding irregularities; school closures; dwindling student enrollment numbers; and has failed to demonstrate substantial student academic progress as compared to their traditional counterparts. Despite a 2020 announcement that ASD schools could potentially return to their local districts, what has since developed is a replication of prior practices which are aimed at the ultimate takeover of public schools by the state.
There are other profound problems with the Achievement School District besides the aforementioned list of systemic failures. First, according to research conducted by Vanderbilt’s Tennessee Education Research Alliance, who have longed tracked the data and adequate progress for Tennessee’s turnaround districts, the ASD has yet to outperform I-Zone schools in student proficiency or progress. In fact, in 2019 a six year evaluation of the ASD by the Alliance concluded that: “after six years of operation, we find that the ASD turnaround strategy as originally conceived and implemented has not produced positive effects.”
Another key element that this education proposal merely glosses over is the adequacy of state funding. Tennessee's primary funding mechanism for K-12 schools is the Basic Education Program. The state comptroller details that, "The BEP formula is also exceedingly complex, with 46 different components that generate funding and an equalization process that sets state and local shares of funding."
In a March 2019 Tennessean article, Chris Henson, a longtime BEP Review Committee member, provided a frank assessment on the BEP funding and spending. He would say, “it is antiquated….The current version of it might be fully funded, but that doesn't mean the BEP funds everything that it should and at the level that it should."
The lack of adequate BEP spending and funding has been well chronicled. Educationdata.org is just one of several groups that monitors per pupil spending and funding. They concluded in an assessment on the state that:
Tennessee equally relies on state and local funding and per pupil spending rank 43rd and 45th in school funding.
Tennessee per pupil spending is slightly over spend $9,544 per pupil and equates for $9.6 billion annually.
The federal government contributes over $1.2 billion annually for per pupil spending.
The difference between spending and funding is $1 billion annually.
Andy Spears, on the online medium Tennessee Education Report, provides a closer analysis of this funding shortfall. According to Spears, not only is a recent policy brief by the Nashville Public Education highly critical of state spending and funding, but he cites findings from the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations which suggests that the BEP underfunds schools by 1.7 billion, while a report from the Education Law Center asserts that if you account for inflation, Tennessee should be spending more than $1 billion more on public education.
Indeed, the state's own BEP Review Committee provided the following recommendations in their 2020 Annual Report:
Hold LEA funding harmless
Continued commitment to increased teacher compensation
Increased funding for technology and accessibility
Funding the number of school counselors at a level closer to national best practices
Funding the number of school nurses at a level closer to national best practices
Increased funding for Response to Intervention and Instruction (RTI2).
It must also be noted, that within the last few weeks, the League of Women Voters TN, Tennessee Public Education Coalition and Pastors for Tennessee Children, and TEA are just some of the growing chorus of groups and individuals who have hit at the state's school funding and spending shortfalls.
Most importantly, the Achievement School District was originally conceived to be a five year plan. It now enters its second decade despite all of its systemic failures. Likewise, it has been reported by Marta Aldrich in Chalkbeat Tennessee that there is currently a bill that would provide turnaround schools with one of three options: (1) petition to move into the State Charter Commission; (2) return to LEAs and apply for new charter contracts; (3) or remain in the Achievement School District if a wide majority of parents vote in favor. This has been done in the aftermath of calls on behalf of some legislators last year that demanded that the State Department of Education develop an exit strategy for schools that are currently under the ASD umbrella. The exit strategy minimally outlines a process and potential options a school might have to leave the ASD.
That is because the way has been paved for the privatization of schools over the progress and growth of students. We have recently witnessed an effort to pass neo-vouchers in the form of education savings accounts; a measure that gave a new charter school commission the authority to preempt LEA's determinations to deny charter applications; a push to allow for-profit charter schools; and even calls to allow virtual charter schools, in addition to this proposal that would create a bureaucratic autocracy where local superintendents and school boards can be superseded.
Unlike a phoenix, the Achievement School District 2.0 will not rise from the ashes but will be like embers charred by smoldering flames. If the legislature chooses to advance this and similar bills, they will be striking the albatross, and students and schools will be the worse for it. We are opposed to granting the commissioner of Education the authority to fire a school system’s superintendent and remove duly elected school board members from any municipality. We are opposed to the privatization of schools, be it through ESAs and neo-vouchers, virtual charter schools, or for- profit charter schools which would decimate and undermine public schools in urban and rural communities alike. We reject the negative over- reliance on high stakes testing to be the sole determinant of a student’s growth and potential when TN Ready has not been ready in five years and can’t account for career and technical education, the digital divide, or achievement gaps.
We call for the this and similar bills to be suspended, tabled, pulled from the calendar, and for more practical and productive measures aimed at supporting public education, students and teachers to be pursued. Many of these progressive measures can be found in the report, Failing Brown v. Board: A Continuous Struggle Against Inequity in Public Education (2018), which sheds light on the challenges faced by sustaining public education today: "The fact is, public schools in black and Latino communities are not 'failing.' They have been failed. More accurately, these schools have been sabotaged for years by policy-makers who fail to fully fund them, by ideologues who choose to experiment with them, by 'entrepreneurs' who choose to extract public taxpayer dollars from education systems for their own pockets." The authors further expounded in the report, "We also know what successful, fully-resourced schools look like: They offer a culturally relevant, engaging and challenging curriculum, smaller class sizes, more experienced teachers, wrap-around emotional and academic supports, a student-centered school climate and meaningful parent and community engagement.” The legislature should give public schools the tools they need to be successful, one of those which is not the Achievement School District 2.0.
Unity Group of Chattanooga
Sherman E. Matthews Jr., Chairman
Eric Atkins, Corresponding Secretary