Since 2011 I have been following the biggest, and most predictable, disaster of the education reform movement — the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD). It was formed in a perfect storm of reform theory. First, Tennessee won Race To The Top money. Then they hired a TFA-alum and the ex-husband of Michelle Rhee, Kevin Huffman to be their state commissioner. Then he hired TFA-alum and charter school founder Chris Barbic to design and run the ASD. The initial promise of the ASD was that they would take schools in the bottom 5% and convert them into charter schools in order to ‘catapult’ them into the top 25% in five years. They started with 6 schools in 2012 and grew to over 30 schools within a few years.
They completely failed at this mission. Chris Barbic resigned, Kevin Huffman resigned, Barbic’s replacement resigned, Barbic’s replacement’s replacement resigned. Of the 30 schools they nearly all stayed in the bottom 5% except a few that catapulted into the bottom 10%.
The new education commissioner of Tennessee is also a TFA alum with ideas similar to Huffman. She promised, however, to get a handle on the ASD and what to do about its failure. After a listening tour around the state she made, it seemed at first, a decision that was long overdue.
Chalkbeat TN recently had a post with the enticing title ‘All 30 schools in Tennessee’s turnaround district would exit by 2022 in a massive restructuring proposal.’ It would seem like this is good news. The ASD was such a costly failure, costing about $100 million over the years I think, the only thing to do was to put it out of its misery and dissolve it completely.
But I’ve been studying reformers enough over the years not to get too excited about this. The headline would make the most optimistic readers think that the 30 schools going back to the district would again become public schools. The charter schools supposedly traded flexibility for accountability so their failure to deliver on their promises should result in them being sent packing.
But according to the article, it is not clear yet if being returned to the district means that they will become public schools again. Also they say that there still will be an ASD after this. Now there can’t be a school district with zero schools, so what’s going on?
I think, and I hope I’m wrong about this, that with the failure of the ASD there was no way that they could justify adding more schools to it. But by ‘returning’ the 30 schools back to their districts, and probably keeping them as charters, there will now be room to add more schools in the bottom 5% to the re-booted ASD. If this is what happens, the ASD won’t be disappearing or even shrinking, it will be expanding. There will be the 30 schools that are still charters, but just operating as part of the district they have been returned to. And then there will be another 20 schools, maybe, that are in the new ASD. (They actually call it the ASD 2.0 in the state slide show)
Basically, this is like when a businessman declares bankruptcy yet finds a way to get out of debt that way and actually profits off of it. Without those original 30 schools that are making their stats look so bad over the years, they will start fresh with other schools. Then they can spend another 8 years with those schools and say “You can’t expect us to fix these schools overnight, we need more time.” But this is just a shell game.
That’s what I think is going on. Maybe I’m wrong, but don’t be surprised if I’m right.