The Center for Popular Democracy released a fine new report earlier this week about three “‘takeover districts’ in which schools that are deemed ‘chronically failing’ are removed from the local school district and placed in a statewide district with a separate governance structure that is far less transparent and accountable to the public.” The new report covers the Louisiana Recovery District, the Tennessee Achievement School District, and the Michigan Education Achievement Authority.
Such “recovery” or “achievement” school districts are a little different than direct state takeovers of school districts like those in Newark, New Jersey, or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, or Highland Park, Michigan. The states operating the “recovery” or “achievement” districts have created a separate statewide school district with the plan of removing particular low-scoring schools from their local district and inserting them into a new statewide governance body.
One of the first things you notice about these so-called statewide districts, however, is that they haven’t really succeeded well enough to operate statewide. Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD) existed before Hurricane Katrina, but the rules for state seizure of schools were expanded immediately after the hurricane to enable state seizure of almost all of New Orleans’ public schools. The state has added to the RSD several other schools in East Baton Rouge Parish, Point Coupee Parish, and Caddo Parish, but the majority of schools administered by the Louisiana RSD remain in New Orleans. In Tennessee, according to the new report, “The state has elected to focus on Memphis: 27 of 29 Achievement School District (ASD) schools are located in Memphis; the remaining two schools are in Nashville.” And in Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority (EAA), although the original intention was to seize struggling schools across the state, the EAA was never expanded beyond the original 15 Detroit schools.
Here is what the Center for Popular Democracy concludes about the three state “achievement” or “recovery” school districts covered in this report:
“Children have seen negligible improvement—or even dramatic setbacks—in their educational performance.” For example, in Tennessee’s ASD, “Only six out of the 17 takeover schools had moved out of the bottom performance decile by the end of the 2013-2014 school year… ASD’s superintendent, Chris Barbic, stepped down in the summer of 2015. In his resignation letter, he acknowledged that ‘achieving results in neighborhood schools is harder than in a choice environment.'” In New Orleans, “The results for students in Louisiana under the RSD program have been anything but clear-cut.” (Linda Darling Hammond and colleagues at Stanford University clarified one reason for this in a research brief last fall. As New Orleans’ schools were sucked into the RSD after Hurricane Katrina, all the rules were bent, and charter schools were permitted to be selective. They continue to have entrance exams and competitive entrance requirements. Not surprisingly, the highest scoring schools are also the most selective schools.) And in Michigan’s EAA, “Between 2012 and 2013, 36 percent of students in EAA schools saw declines in their performance on Michigan’s MEAP methematics tests, and another 43 percent saw no improvement. Thirty-six percent of EAA students also saw declines in MEAP reading performance….”
“State takeover districts have created a breeding ground for fraud and mismanagement at the public’s expense.” In all three state takeover districts, “private interests stand ready to gain through both legal and illegal channels. Real estate deals and fees paid to education consultants can siphon millions of dollars away from direct investment in the students enrolled… In New Orleans, much of the profiteering has been enabled by inadequate oversight and unscrupulous contractors.” “In Michigan, the EAA has used its students as guinea pigs to test for-profit educational software. The EAA established a ‘blended learning’ model, basing its curriculum on a for-profit educational software product called ‘Buzz,’ which… relegates teachers to ‘more of a facilitative role.’ The EAA paid a total of $350,000 to try out this previously untested software…. Teachers complained that the software did not work properly and was incomplete…. Finally, in 2015, the EAA made Buzz optional for instruction….” And in Tennessee: “A joint audit by the State of Tennessee’s Comptroller of the Department of Education and the State Board of Education found mismanagement of federal funding as well as incorrect payment processing at the ASD between July 2012 and June 2014.”
“Staff face high turnover and instability, creating a disrupted learning environment for children.” “Many times, the entire staff of all takeover schools has been fired at once, and is usually replaced by new teachers with far less experience. The demographics of the teaching workforce can also change when teachers are brought in by external, private entities like Teach for America.”
“Students of color and those with special needs face harsh disciplinary measures and discriminatory practices that further entrench a two-tiered educational system.” The new report summarizes the details of the lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and families whose children’s rights to special education services were violated by Louisiana RSD charters that accepted students but failed to provide services appropriate to their needs. “Only in early 2015, after a federal judge approved a settlement order resolving a four-year old lawsuit, did the state commit to new oversight measures. The settlement order delineated new safeguards for children with special needs, including a new independent monitor, an auditing procedure, provisions to evaluate special education programs when charter schools apply for renewal, and a requirement that the state creates a plan to identify all students in need of special education services.” All three state “recovery” or “achievement” districts are reported to have overused suspensions and harsh discipline.
The release of the Center for Popular Democracy’s report couldn’t be more timely. Just a week ago, the Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents, one of the partners with the state of Michigan and the Detroit Public Schools in the formation of Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority, voted to withdraw its involvement in the EAA. The university has been criticized by the public and by its own College of Education, its professors, and its students because the university’s Board of Regents agreed to participate back in 2011 without buy-in from members of the faculty of the College of Education. The Detroit Free Press reports: “The formation of the EAA… in June 2011… was met with concern from the faculty, especially those from Eastern’s education school, which said they had not been consulted. Faculty continued to be upset over the years, saying their expertise was not being used to help improve the district.” Over the years some public school districts have protested Eastern Michigan University’s involvement in the EAA by refusing to place the university’s student teachers in their public schools.
The Free Press quotes Jim Stapleton, a member of Eastern Michigan’s Board of Regents, describing why he voted to endorse the university’s separation from EAA: “Today, the (EAA) district is not even being run by someone with an educational background. When coupled with the damage this arrangement has done to the reputation of our university and, particularly the retaliation that has taken place against our students just trying to start their careers for a decision our board made… this has been personally problematic for me for a while.”
The fact that Eastern Michigan University is pulling out of the Education Achievement Authority means, according to the original agreement that specifies a time line for eventual closure if any of the partners withdraws, that by June 30, 2017, the EAA will cease to exist, unless the legislature shuts it down before that.