Report Critiques State Takeover School Districts in LA, TN, and MI; Michigan’s Will Be Dissolved

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.


New Orleans Model Is Not Such a Model After All

In the five years from 2006 to 2011, I visited New Orleans at least twice a year.  I have been baffled since that time by the one-sided research created to paint the transformation of the city’s schools as a sort of miracle.  The reality is very troubling and far more complicated.  I recommend Gary Rivlin’s extraordinary new book, Katrina: After the Flood, because Rivlin’s stories of real people’s return or failure to return—their hard work and their despair—their financial losses—and their courage to keep on keeping on—create a real sense of the depth of the struggle, particularly for African American families in Gentilly and New Orleans East. But Rivlin doesn’t really cover the transformation of the schools.  For an authoritative summary of what has happened since all of the teachers and staff were laid off in the fall of 2005 and the schools progressively turned into a mass of privately managed charter schools, one must read the new brief by Frank Adamson, Channa Cook-Harvey, and Linda Darling-Hammond from the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, Whose Choice? Student Experiences and Outcomes in the New Orleans School Marketplace.  (If you want to read further, a much longer report on the research is provided.)  All references in this post are to the shorter research brief.

While the schools of New Orleans are now virtually all charter schools, some schools that were high-performing prior to the hurricane and were not seized by the state remain under the control of the old Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB).  The research brief calls these Tier I schools. Another tier of schools are three kinds of schools authorized by the Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD)—charter, stand-alone, and direct run.  Then there is a third tier made up of alternative schools, those students volunteer to attend and those to which some students are assigned.  “It is clear that the organization of schools in New Orleans is highly stratified: The school tiers sort students by race, income, and special education status, with the most advantaged students at the top and the least advantaged at the bottom.  Only the top two sub-tiers within Tier 1 have any appreciable number of white and Asian students and any noticeable number of students who are non-poor.”  The authors remind us that, “Louisiana’s charter law explicitly allows some schools to engage in selective enrollment practices that resemble those of private schools—for example, requiring minimum grade point averages and standardized test scores….”

The authors describe how the enrollment process actually works for students: “Because schools at the top of the hierarchy (the OPSB schools) largely choose their student body, few students actually have the option to attend these schools, while those schools at the bottom are assigned students who are not chosen elsewhere or who are pushed out of schools further up the hierarchy.  The RSD usually places expelled students in the Tier-3 alternative charter schools.”  “Fully 89 percent of white students and 73 percent of Asian students in New Orleans attend Tier I (OPSB) schools.  However, only 23.5 percent of African American students have access to these schools.  And whereas 60 percent of students who are above the poverty line (i.e. those who can pay for their school lunch) attend Tier I schools, only 21.5 percent of students whose family income is low enough to be eligible to receive free lunch have access to these schools.”

The study’s authors note that, “The top schools not only have selective enrollment criteria, they are also permitted to ask students who do not maintain a certain grade point average to leave.  Similarly, they are allowed to determine which and how many special needs students they admit… The students identified as ‘special education’ in the highest performing schools are generally designated as ‘gifted’ or ‘talented,’ and rarely include the kinds of disabilities found in lower tier schools.”  The students’ characteristics are reflected in the schools aggregate test scores: “Not only do Tier I schools rank as the best in the city, they consistently rank among the best schools in the state of Louisiana.”  Of course schools that can choose to accept the highest scoring students and can push out low-scoring students are likely to rank high in a state that grades schools on their students’ standardized test scores.

New Orleans has bragged about its new OneApp application system that has made it easier for students to apply for schools and has replaced a school-by-school application system, but the authors of the Stanford research brief explain that OneApp has not really increased opportunity for the majority of students: “A parent’s desire to send his or her child to a particular school does not result in the child going there.  Admission to that school is predicated on a host of factors that are out of the parent’s control, such as the neighborhood, the availability of spots, the lottery number if the student is on a waiting list, and the child’s academic and behavioral record or special needs.  The desirability of the school available to a family is closely related to the desirability of the child from the perspective of the school, including the likelihood that the child will behave well, work hard, and perform well on state tests that… will determine the school’s reputation and ongoing survival.”

The researchers note the high number of charter school closures in New Orleans—15 percent of all schools in 2013 alone.  “And because the school hierarchy serves students of different income and achievement levels in different tiers, the neediest students are by definition most likely to be in schools that are closed due to low test scores… An RSD representative voiced her concern that the district had no safeguards to ensure that students would not get assigned from one failing school to another, or even lost from the system entirely.”

A primary challenge for a fragmented set of independently run charters has been the provision of services for children needing special education services.  While a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2010 challenged the Recovery School District for failure to provide services for students with special needs, the authors of the new research brief point out that these concerns have not been resolved.  “The Cowen Institute’s 2013 report on the State of Public Education in New Orleans, also noted that, ‘No single entity is responsible for ensuring students with special education needs are served, making it difficult to track students across schools.'”

The Louisiana Recovery School district is frequently held up as a model for other states to try, and such state takeovers are being implemented in many states including Michigan, Tennessee, Arkansas, Wisconsin and Ohio.  The Stanford researchers warn about accepting at face value glowing reports about the New Orleans transformation after Hurricane Katrina: “A constantly changing set of metrics in terms of how student scores are reported (with recent changes in cut scores and content) and how school ratings are reported (with several sets of changes to the school ranking system) have contributed to competing narratives about the effectiveness of reforms in the years since Katrina.  So has the fact that the state allows schools that are brand new, have been closed, or have accepted students from a closing school to be exempted from the accountability ratings for a period of time.  Thus, in 2013, when 9 schools opened and 9 closed, and another set of schools accepted students from those being shut down, more than one-third of New Orleans RSD schools, disproportionately lower-performing, were exempted from the ratings.  In that year the district’s improved ranking (from an ‘F’ to a ‘C’) occurred substantially because of these exemptions… When looked at separately from OPSB, which was not the subject of state takeover and did not include a system-wide conversion to charter schools, New Orleans RSD schools demonstrate very low outcomes.”

The report’s authors conclude: “Ultimately, successful system reform must be designed to promote high quality school experiences for all students in settings that safeguard children’s rights of access to supportive learning opportunities.  In the context of a school portfolio, such a successful reform must also support school improvement in ways that ultimately create a set of schools that are worth choosing, in which every child will chose and be chosen by the schools that meet their needs.  That system has not yet been created in New Orleans.”

Even If NCLB Is Reauthorized, States Push On with Punitive School Policies and Privatization

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.

Extraordinary New Video Recounts First Chapter of New Orleans School Charterization

At the end of May, Lyndsey Layton reported in the Washington Post that the last of New Orleans’ traditional public schools in what has been called the Recovery School District (RSD) have been converted to charter schools, leaving no remaining neighborhood public schools in New Orleans.

Today over 40 separate boards oversee what has become a fragmented patchwork of school choice.  In the context of the charter conversion of the last traditional public schools in New Orleans, the New Orleans Equity Roundtable has just released the first of a series of videos that will tell the story of the the creation of America’s first all-charter school district.

The transformation began in the months immediately following Hurricane Katrina in the fall of 2005. Interviewed in this film are the Rev. Torin Sanders, who was serving on the Orleans Parish School Board back in 2005 when laws were quickly changed by the legislature under pressure from Cecil Picard (the state superintendent of education at the time); Barbara Ferguson a former superintendent of the Orleans Parish Schools; and Karran Harper Royal, an informed and passionate New Orleans parent advocate.

Huge federal grants arrived before Christmas in 2005 from the U.S. Department of Education (under Margaret Spellings) to support the experiment.  Very soon philanthropic dollars followed from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others.  New Orleans’  7,000 public school teachers  were summarily laid off.

Naomi Klein described the rush to charterize public schools in New Orleans as the defining metaphor for her 2007 best seller 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… 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.’”

Data have been shared by the Recovery School District and its supporters to demonstrate that the charters have significantly raised achievement since Hurricane Katrina, but critics point out that the students posting scores today are an entirely different group of children.  Many of New Orleans’ poorest families, unable to replace their homes that had been destroyed, did not return to the city.  A lawsuit has been filed on behalf of students with special needs who could not find in the city’s charters the services guaranteed to them under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

In the new video, Barbara Ferguson confirms what retired Louisiana educator Mike Deshotels recently reported in his blog: “The Louisiana Department of Education has just released the results of the state accountability testing called LEAP and ILEAP for the Spring of 2014… The latest state testing results in this official LDOE report now rank the New Orleans Recovery District at the 17th percentile among all Louisiana public school districts in student performance.  By the state’s own calculations this means that 83 percent of the state’s school districts provide their students a better opportunity for learning than do the schools in New Orleans that were taken over and converted into charter schools.”

The New Orleans Equity Roundtable’s new video explains exactly what happened in the weeks and months immediately following the hurricane.  This blog will share the rest of the videos as they are released.