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VOL. 133 | NO. 60 | Friday, March 23, 2018

Parkinson to Introduce Bill Phasing Out State’s Achievement School District

By Sam Stockard

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NASHVILLE – Rep. Antonio Parkinson is set to make a push to remove Memphis schools from the state’s Achievement School District and dissolve the state district because of its failure to pull them out of Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent for performance.

ANTONIO PARKINSON

Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, contends $108 million would be sent to local school systems if 33 Memphis schools and two Nashville schools in the ASD are returned to Shelby County and Davidson County school systems. It is part of legislation he is planning to bring in the General Assembly this session.

“The budget for it is in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and they have not, to date, delivered on any of the things they promised when this thing was brought into creation. So we need accountability,” Parkinson says.

Parkinson’s legislation, which he plans to introduce Tuesday, March 27, in the House Education Administration and Planning Committee, would require schools removed from a local education agency (LEA) into the ASD remain until July 2019 when the state school district would be eliminated or charter school agreements with ASD expire.

Almost every ASD school is run by charter school operators.

In addition, those LEAs would be required to intervene in the schools with a new improvement or turnaround plan, which is necessary under federal law.

A summary of the bill’s fiscal impact on Tennessee shows $100 million would shift back to Shelby County Schools in 2019-20 and $8 million would go back to Davidson County Schools.

Under the legislation, the Tennessee Department of Education would have to obtain federal approval for a new intervention plan, because the Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to intervene in the state’s lowest-performing schools when they fail to show improvement over a four-year period.

Based on any “lag” between federal approval of such a program and ASD’s elimination, some federal funding could be jeopardized but the amount is unknown, the fiscal note states. Tennessee received $359.8 million from the federal government for education in fiscal 2018.

Parkinson contends Shelby County Schools could use the iZone program adopted at other struggling schools to help the ASD schools when they transfer back to the local system.

“One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard from the ASD (schools) is they weren’t getting enough support from the ASD. We need to get them over to SCS and get them the support they need so we could start possibly moving those schools,” Parkinson says.

State Rep. Mark White, who chairs the House Education panel where Parkinson’s bill would be considered first, is opposed to eliminating the ASD because the federal government requires Tennessee to have some program in place to handle failing schools. With Gov. Bill Haslam set to leave office in early 2019, setting up a new intervention program and avoiding any down time could be difficult, he says.

“I think the ASD is good. It still puts a little pressure on the locals to perform, (so) we do have that ability to say, ‘If you don’t perform we’ll come in and run the school,’” says White, a Memphis Republican.

White points out Shelby County Schools put the iZone program in place to keep from losing more schools to the ASD. He says the committee he chairs isn’t ready to dump ASD, either, because it “sees value” in the state district.

Consequently, he sees the chance for some negotiations with Parkinson.

The ASD is making some headway even though it hasn’t moved any schools out of the bottom 5 percent yet.

For instance, it announced last fall one school showed “exceptional growth” and made its way off the state priority list. Lester Prep Middle School is “improving” and Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary is on an “exit” status if it continues to succeed at a certain level.

But in October 2017, the Tennessee Department of Education released a report showing the ASD to be “in need of improvement.”

In response, interim ASD Superintendent Kathleen Airhart noted the ASD was formed because schools were “desperate need of improvement” statewide.

“The fact that our current accountability determinations are rated as ‘in need improvement’ speaks to the fact that most of the hard and critical work to support students and lift schools is still ahead of us,” she says in the statement.

Airhart called the improvement at Georgian Hills and its prospect for returning to its home district “particularly gratifying.” The superintendent says she spent time in both schools and visited with their leaders where she saw a “culture and climate” enabling her to gain a “better insight into the academic advances they have been able to make and hope they have restored at these schools.”

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, in a statement, says, “The Achievement School District remains critical to our work as a state to improve students’ performance, especially in our priority schools.”

McQueen contends the ASD “has been effective” in forcing school systems to make changes and raise expectations for children to perform better. She also says overall performance of priority schools has improved since the ASD was adopted some five years ago.

“We also want to accelerate success for every child and continue to improve our work in this area,” McQueen said. “Over the past year, we have had an opportunity through the Every Student Succeeds Act to build on what we’ve learned over the last several years within school improvement and to streamline the work of the Achievement School District, while also adding new options for school improvement beyond the ASD.”

White points out Memphis had 67 schools in the bottom 5 percent when ASD started, though he adds the state district “has a hard climb” to pull the rest of them to a higher level.

“You just don’t stop and go back to where you were because that wasn’t working either,” White says, noting the state and schools within the district need to continue working on a process to “transform” them.

“We’re just trying to find a formula,” White says.

Parkinson, however, believes much of the problem could lie with the money and the fact charter schools are businesses and, as such, are set up to make money.

“This doesn’t mean we necessarily get rid of the charters. It would be up to the LEA when those schools start moving back as to what to do with them,” Parkinson says. “I’m not anti-charter or anti-choice. I’m just anti-B.S.”

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Memphis Daily News and Nashville Ledger. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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