In an important piece last week for the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant looks at the way the dynamics are shifting in punitive education “reform.” Even if Congress reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to take away No Child Left Behind’s federally prescribed turnarounds for schools in the lowest scoring 5 percent across the states, the punitive culture has been absorbed into the states themselves. Reform that emphasizes sanctions, rather than state investment in education for equity, is particularly appealing to legislators in these times of tax cuts and austerity budgeting. After all, more than half the states are not yet even investing as much as they were in public education prior to the Great Recession in 2008. Test-and-punish for the lowest-scoring schools is a popular strategy, because people outside the communities where it is imposed don’t feel the pain. The flavor of the day as far as test-and-punish goes, according to Bryant is the state “Recovery School District,” as it is sometimes called, or state “Achievement School District.”
Bryant comments, “(T)here is a danger punitive ‘accountability’ policies from the federal government are about to pivot to even more unreasonable measures from states. The danger, in particular, comes in the form of new policies being taken up by an increasing number of states to create special agencies—usually made up of non-elected officials—with the power to swoop into communities, take over local school governance, and turn schools over to private management groups often associated with large charter chains. These appointed boards often take on the guise of a shining knight—using names like Recovery School District or Achievement School District. But they are anything but gallant soldiers coming to the rescue.”
Recovery School District. Achievement School District. They are the very same thing. Though Bryant’s review of this trend doesn’t go back ten years, the latest wave of state school takeovers began in the winter after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. Naomi Klein describes the birth of the Louisiana Recovery School District in her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision. Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools. Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now it ran just 4… New Orleans teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union’s contract had been shredded, and its forty-seven hundred members had all been fired… New Orleans was now, according to the New York Times, ‘the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools’…. I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.’” (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 5-6)
Today’s school takeovers through Recovery School Districts or Achievement School Districts do not follow hurricanes or floods or earthquakes. Instead the sense of catastrophe that is believed to create the need for takeover and the private school management through charters that inevitably follows is the clustering of low standardized test scores in the poorest neighborhoods of our cities—a clustering that has been correlated again and again with growing economic segregation overlaid on segregation by race. The federal No Child Left Behind Act, which has since 2002 mandated annual standardized testing for all children and disaggregated and reported the test scores, has created the sense of crisis by persistently labeling the poorest performing schools and school districts. And in our poorest city neighborhoods there is a crisis for the children and for their schools that, as institutions operating in communities of devastating poverty, almost inevitably become overwhelmed. Politicians realize something must be done, and a Recovery School District for other people’s children is not as politically painful as equalizing school finance, for example.
As Bryant explains, Recovery School Districts and Achievement School Districts—empowered by state law to take over the worst scoring schools or school districts, bring in emergency managers with the power to close schools, abrogate union contracts and even turn whole school districts over to Charter Management Organizations—are an increasingly popular “answer” to our problem of “failing” schools and school districts. In Tennessee, the legislature created an Achievement School District (ASD), giving “appointed officials the power to override local governance and take control of the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state.” Operating first in Nashville and later adding Memphis, “ASD required districts to enforce, for their lowest performing schools, either or both of the following measures: fire school staff or hand the school over to a charter school management organization. Conveniently, the ASD is also a charter authorizer, so it can designate any of its schools for charter takeover, and indeed it has done so numerous times. In fact, the outgoing superintendent of the ASD, Chris Barbic, is the founder and ex-CEO of the Yes Prep chain of charter schools.” Barbic resigned recently from the Tennessee Achievement School District when it became apparent that reading scores had dropped instead of improving as promised.
Bryant also sums up the story of the failed Michigan Education Achievement Authority, established in 2011 under Governor Rick Snyder. Michigan’s recovery school district has been plagued with corruption and unable to raise test scores in Detroit. Neither have Snyder’s state-apppointed emergency managers in Muskegon Heights and Highland Park school districts successfully turned around student achievement. In fact the Charter Management Organizations brought in by emergency managers in Muskegon Heights and Highland Park—Mosaica and the Leona Group, both for-profits—have both quit, unable to turn a profit, despite their unprecedented power to close schools, fire teachers, and ignore contractual agreements with the unions.
Bryant reports that other states seeking to launch such “Recovery” or “Achievement” districts are Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arkansas, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin, where there is a move afoot to take over the Milwaukee Public Schools. Even, “In New York, the state Education Department recently put 144 ‘persistently struggling’ schools under a new program that threatens them with ‘outside receivership.'”
Ohio instituted such a program in the last week of June. The legislation was rushed through within 24 hours and without any opponent testimony permitted in the legislature. The Plain Dealer editorialized on Sunday about the danger of this sort of legislation: “School reform is difficult. It requires consensus, lots of public debate and no small amount of trust. But the stealthy legislative steamrolling of the Youngstown Academic Distress Commission shamefully proves that’s not how many Republican members of the Ohio General Assembly or Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Richard Ross see it… The stealth provisions effectively abolish local control of schools after three years’ of failing grades and impose draconian changes that allow a single person appointed by a new commission established by the state to determine policies on pay, hiring, firing and charter schools, bypassing local school boards, administrators and unions… Abolishing local control in the dark of the night is not the right way to achieve strong school reform statewide. And the new measure affects all public school districts in the future that earn failing grades for three consecutive years.”
If a Congressional conference committee can come to some agreement about reauthorizing the law we now call No Child Left Behind (and that may not be possible due to huge differences between House and Senate versions of the reauthorization bill), it is possible that Congress will lighten the heavy hand of federal test-and-punish. But after a decade-and-a-half of everybody’s somehow swallowing the idea that we can punish schools into raising test scores—a period when Race to the Top dangled money in front of states that jumped to adopt punitive education policy into state law as the condition for getting a federal grant—we seem to lack the vision to see what needs to happen to improve the schools that serve our society’s very poorest children.