The General Assembly created an Achievement School District in NC during the short session of 2016. The district will be a statewide school unit under the administration of the State Board of Education, comprising five of the lowest-performing elementary schools from around the state. The ASD will be directed by a superintendent recommended by a committee appointed and headed by Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. He or she will be approved by the SBE. The ASD superintendent will select charter school operators from among those already operating in the state or their affiliates, and will have five schools in total by 2019-20, with no more than one coming from a single district.
The selected charters, called AS operators, will assume control of a school and its physical resources, taking it away from the locally elected board while maintaining its geographical attendance zone. It will be funded by attendance, as charters are, and the monies will be transferred from the local authorities to the ASD. The charter operators, which can be based out-of-state and be for-profit, will run the schools for at least five years and as many as eight years. ASD schools will be required to participate in the federal lunch program. Local districts will remain responsible for transportation and facilities and capital expenditures. The logistics of this are yet to be determined.
The ASD law requires that districts that have a school selected for the ASD either submit to the takeover or close the school. The law includes a provision allowing districts that surrender a school to the ASD to create an “Innovation Zone” (i-Zones) that would allow charter-like flexibility for up to 3 other continually low-performing schools. However, districts already had the ability to request this flexibility for low-performing schools under pre-existing law. There is no funding to invest in potential turnaround efforts of the i-Zones, which do not build on the success of the state’s existing turnaround effort NC Transformation (formerly known as TALAS). The budget includes only the “intent” to provide future grants of up to $150,000 to districts that can match that amount.
History of ASDs
In February 2016, the Center for Popular Democracy compiled data on the nation’s three existing ASDs. The results are not encouraging.
- In New Orleans, the so-called Recovery School District began operating in the tumultuous wake of Hurricane Katrina. It has reported student gains but some studies undermine those claims and find instead practices that inflate student achievement by excluding certain types of students, particularly those with disabilities, and changing achievement metrics. Moreover, a long-running lawsuit’s settlement showed that thousands of special-needs students experienced discrimination and illegal discipline as the RSD routinely violated the federal law. Michael Deshotels, the former director of the Louisiana Association of Educators, has analyzed the RSD He says, “if schools in the RSD are compared using student test performance, there is no indication of improvement compared to all the public schools in the state. The ranking of takeover schools started in the bottom quartile compared to all schools in the state, and remains in the bottom quartile.”
- Michigan created the Education Achievement Authority in 2011 to run 15 schools in Detroit, a district that the state had already taken over. Three schools were converted to charters. Plagued by high staff turnover, financial corruption, and declining enrollment, student achievement in the EAA actually declined. The legislature is now disbanding the EAA as part of yet another restructuring of the Detroit Public Schools.
- Tennessee’s ASD consists of school primarily in Memphis, with just two of 29 in Nashville; 24 of the schools were converted to charters. The district’s gains after three years are inferior to those achieved by district-led efforts in similarly struggling schools. In 2016, as NC’s ASD became law, researchers from George Washington University and Vanderbilt reported: “While some might argue that the conditions for charters in the ASD put them on an even playing field with their public counterparts in high-poverty neighborhoods, the reality for ASD charters was in many ways more complex. ASD operators had to contend with many of the constraints that impede traditional schools yet without the benefits that a conventional district could provide. For one thing, traditional public schools have the advantage of being just that—traditional. Regardless of their performance, these schools and their employees have the imprimatur of long local standing, and the social and political capital that accrues with this resident identity. As outsiders tainted by the perception of state takeover, nearly all ASD charters were cast with suspicion and did not enjoy this taken-for-granted status.”
- In August 2016, Tennessee’s state auditor found massive problems with the fiscal management of its ASD. The Times Free Press reports that analysts found “seven key areas where ASD did not establish processes over key human resources and payroll functions, including segregating duties; maintaining personnel files; verifying education credentials; documenting time and attendance; completing performance reviews; documenting approvals of bonuses and pay raises; and exiting employees.”
- The structure of NC’s ASD, as detailed in the legislation itself, offers no more safeguards than the others discussed. Former NCGA analyst Kris Nordstrom wrote of the aforementioned TN report, “the researchers note, ‘the turnaround space for charters (in an ASD) is indisputably different from their usual circumstances, and as such calls for a very different type of schooling operations.’ The Tennessee program failed despite relying upon private charter operators with ‘a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge and experience.’ North Carolina’s ASD program is similarly set up for failure. Despite the assurances of the bill sponsors, there are no ‘guardrails’ to ensure success.”
During spring 2016 meetings of the House ASD Select Committee, Dr. Gary Henry of Vanderbilt University presented research demonstrating TN’s ASD’s lack of effect on student outcomes. He also discussed a policy brief he wrote with colleagues who established that TN’s other model for turning around schools, a district-led effort called iZone, was more successful than the state’s ASD. An NC School Boards Association representative and another researcher made similar points regarding the difficulties charter school operators have when they try to run neighborhood schools, which is not what charter schools are designed to accomplish. Despite these warnings, the ASD measure was passed without additional accountability or safeguards.
North Carolina chose to establish a model that has proven unsuccessful, unaccountable, and inequitable. Most educators believe this approach could actually be harmful to some vulnerable students. The state is taking over struggling schools without providing accountability to the local community even though ASDs offer no guarantee of improved student outcomes. Turning low-performing schools around is an urgent and worthy goal, but ASDs have not shown success for all children. There is no reason to believe that taking schools over and then asking districts with persistently underperforming schools to match any possible state funding for Innovation Zone programs will perform better.