A Warning on Privatization

This article originally appeared in The Progressive.

In 2012, Tennessee’s began a scheme known as the Achievement School District, or ASD. The goal was simple and bold: Take a handful of schools in the bottom 5 percent of student achievement, according to state test scores, and move those schools into the top 25 percent in student achievement in just five years.

This miraculous shift, officials claimed, would be accomplished by placing schools under a new state agency, which would then determine an intervention strategy that might include turning a standard public school over to a charter operator. Any school anywhere in the state would be eligible, so long as it was on the “priority schools” list. As a whole, the schools would be governed by their own “district,” complete with a superintendent who reported directly to the commissioner of education.

Tennessee’s commissioner of education at the time, Kevin Huffman, hired charter operator Chris Barbic to run the new district. Barbic’s arrival coincided with the takeover of a first cohort of schools by the ASD, along with the unveiling of his plan to generate the expected turnaround.

So what was that plan, exactly? 

Well, of course, it was to turn all the priority schools over to charter operators. After all, Barbic reasoned, other charter school leaders would know just what to do with entire schools from urban districts with high levels of entrenched poverty.

But the charter school plan had another, more sinister impact. Tennessee’s charter school law gave charter operators ten year charters from the granting district. Since the ASD had taken over the local schools (most of them in Memphis), the ASD was now the charter-granting district. Now, schools in the ASD would not be eligible to return to their home districts for ten years, rather than the five years envisioned in the initial ASD legislation.

By executing the charter switch, Huffman and Barbic had immediately doubled the amount of time they would have to produce results with their education experiment, even though both of them would be gone by the time the ten-year period was up.

Still, the plan was bold and its promises were big. Almost immediately, there were problems. 

Some charter operators dropped out, and new operators swooped in. A series of directors attempted to run the rapidly sinking ship.

There were even Thunderdome-like contests early on to decide which schools would be handed over to charter operators, despite parent and community objections.

In 2020, New York City math teacher and popular blogger Gary Rubinstein, who tracked the ASD from its inception, reported the ASD’s “initial promise” to take over the bottom 5 percent of schools and “catapult them into the top 25 percent in five years” had “completely failed . . . . Chris Barbic resigned, Kevin Huffman resigned, Barbic’s replacement resigned.  Of the thirty schools, they nearly all stayed in the bottom 5 percent except a few that catapulted into the bottom 10 percent.”

When Barbic resigned after just a few years on the job, Chalkbeat reported, he “offered a dim prognosis” on the fate of the ASD. “As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results,” he wrote. “I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.”

Still, the ASD muddled forward. Now, the failed experiment is at the end of its run. Multiple groups of students have traveled in and out of charter doors with the end result being disruption, displacement, and discouraging results.

As the tenth year runs out, questions remain about exactly how to transition the schools back to their districts. Funny, it always seemed so easy to just move students and their families to charter schools and then to other charter schools as reformers scrambled to manipulate student populations in search of ever-elusive results. 

Even so, it seemed as if the ASD had reached its end.

In March, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, a Repubican, announced yet another plan to continue the district. More specifically, Lee wants to allow a handful of his personal favorite charter operators to continue to manage some select ASD schools. 

Not content to let a really bad idea die, Lee is backing legislation that would allow some schools to move from the ASD to the jurisdiction of the state’s relatively new Charter School Commission. That Commission was created by Lee in his first year as governor in order to circumvent the rejection of charter schools by local school boards.

Another piece of legislation, which has stalled for now, would allow Lee’s commissioner of education to take over an entire district by firing the director of schools and replacing the elected school board. This circumvention of democracy was widely seen as a way for Lee to send a message to the outspoken school boards in Memphis and Nashville that they’d better fall in line or else.

Of course, it hasn’t been lost on observers that Memphis and Nashville are suing the state, challenging the adequacy of the school funding formula. While the legislation is on hold for now, the point is clear: Districts are to do what the governor says and stay quiet when they disagree.

In fact, at a recent press event discussing the use of federal stimulus funds by local districts, Lee suggested that the state’s department of education would be watching districts to ensure they spent the money the right way. House Education Committee Chair Mark White went one step further, saying that he would be expecting tremendous jumps in student performance in exchange for this money. 

Education advocates around the country should beware these sorts of moves—power grabs cloaked in the guise of “assistance or guidance,” legislation to extend failed reform models, and/or the repackaging of proven reform failures as something shiny and new.

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Unity Group in Chattanooga Opposes ASD 2.0

Amid reports that Gov. Bill Lee is pushing legislation to extend the life of the failed Achievement School District, the Unity Group of Chattanooga has announced opposition to the move.

In an opinion piece, Sherman Matthews and Eric Atkins (Chair and Corresponding Secretary, respectively) expressed the group’s concerns.

A new proposal being pushed through the Tennessee House Education Committee is the latest saga in the long effort to takeover schools through privatization. In order to accomplish this, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the state would create the Achievement School District 2.0. The ASD has been the embattled mostly charter run district, which operates a majority of its schools in Memphis and Nashville; has been plagued by multiple executive directors; constant teacher turnover; funding irregularities; school closures; dwindling student enrollment numbers; and has failed to demonstrate substantial student academic progress as compared to their traditional counterparts. Despite a 2020 announcement that ASD schools could potentially return to their local districts, what has since developed is a replication of prior practices which are aimed at the ultimate takeover of public schools by the state.  

Unlike a phoenix, the Achievement School District 2.0 will not rise from the ashes but will be like embers charred by smoldering flames. If the legislature chooses to advance this and similar bills, they will be striking the albatross, and students and schools will be the worse for it. We are opposed to granting the commissioner of Education the authority to fire a school system’s superintendent and remove duly elected school board members from any municipality. We are opposed to the privatization of schools, be it through ESAs and neo-vouchers, virtual charter schools, or for- profit charter schools which would decimate and undermine public schools in urban and rural communities alike. We reject the negative over- reliance on high stakes testing to be the sole determinant of a student’s growth and potential when TN Ready has not been ready in five years and can’t account for career and technical education, the digital divide, or achievement gaps. 

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Lee Continues Predictable Privatization Push

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is no fan of public schools as he makes clear time and again. Whether it is advancing voucher schemes, creating charter school slush funds, or refusing to invest in our underfunded public schools, Lee is working tirelessly to undermine public education in our state.

Now, Lee is seeking to reward charter schools in Memphis and trap more schools in the failed Achievement School District.

Chalkbeat has more:

When Tennessee started taking over low-performing schools and matching most with charter operators in 2012, the plan was to return the schools to their home districts when they improved in an estimated five years.

Now Gov. Bill Lee is proposing other options for schools that have remained in the state’s turnaround program for nearly 10 years — most notably to let some of the higher-performing ones move from one state-run district to another.

Under legislation introduced this week, Lee proposed letting some charter schools bypass their original district when leaving Tennessee’s Achievement School District, also known as the ASD. Instead, they could apply to move directly to the state’s new charter school commission, which the governor helped to create.

It’s not like we couldn’t see this coming. In fact, warnings about Lee’s aggressive stance about privatization came early. In 2018, I noted:

Even though as early as 2016, Bill Lee was extolling the virtues of school voucher schemes and even though he’s a long-time supporter of Betsy DeVos’s pro-voucher Tennessee Federation for Children and even though he has appointed not one, but two voucher vultures to high level posts in his Administration, it is somehow treated as “news” that Bill Lee plans to move forward with a voucher scheme agenda in 2019.

In addition to the failure of the ASD to do, well, anything there’s also ample evidence of the failure of charter schools. Never mind the facts, though, Lee is committed to privatizing at all costs.

In 2019, I noted that charter schools in Tennessee and elsewhere are the “God That Failed” – taking money while yielding little in the way of results. Then, I suggested that in spite of all the evidence, Tennessee would continue down this path:

In other words, poverty matters. And, making the investments to combat it matters, too.


In other words, money matters. Districts with concentrated poverty face two challenges: Students with significant economic needs AND the inability of the district to generate the revenue necessary to adequately invest in schools.

But, by all means, let’s continue to worship at the feet of the Charter God hoping that our faith in “free markets” will be enough to move the needle for the kids who most need the opportunities provided by public education.

Plus, there was this great video demonstrating what must be the typical conversation around the Lee Administration’s privatization war room:

Remember when education advocates warned that Lee’s charter commission would grow, expand, and take over more schools and we were told that we were just being silly? Well, here’s how that seems to be turning out:

If the ASD bill passes, the commission’s role will expand, and its portfolio of charter schools is likely to grow. (The entity currently oversees three schools in Nashville and one in Memphis.) For now, the commission’s authority is limited as an appellate authorizer of charter organizations deemed to be high quality but rejected by local school boards.

What’s also interesting is the propensity of Tennessee policymakers to do a lot of talking that results in little action that helps students:

Tennessee leaders have been talking for years about how to exit ASD schools that haven’t met early improvement goals acknowledged now as too lofty. But because the transition involves everything from people and property to finances and governance, the state has found it almost as hard to transition schools out of the ASD as it was to take them over.

It’s as if there is no one leading anything other than the charge privatize public schools at all costs. ASD running into problems? Here’s an idea: Let’s let it continue to plague poor communities with little regard to actual results.

Will Gov. Lee creates confusion by attacking Confucius, our schools have real needs. Needs he seems content to ignore. This is not an accident, it’s an intentional act designed to decimate public schools. At this point, with a state experiencing a huge surplus (likely over $2 billion this year alone), refusing to fund public schools is a policy choice. It’s a choice that keeps being made over and over again. Sadly, it’s a choice that is made while some so-called public school supporters stand by and also indicate support for Lee.

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What’s the Big Deal?

Earlier this month, I wrote about the Germantown School District’s letter in response to Gov. Bill Lee’s education agenda as passed in the January special legislative session. Specifically, I noted that Germantown expressed concern about SB 7001, which heavily incentivizes districts to reach 80% participation in TNReady testing – testing that must take place in-person.

Why does this even matter? Well, as the Germantown Board points out, a number of families have chosen to have students participate in remote-only learning in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Requiring those students to return to school in-person may very well be a difficult, it not impossible, task.

So what?

Well, if your district doesn’t reach the magic 80% threshold, the district is subject to a range of potential penalties, including receiving a “letter grade” from the state about the quality of schools and the possibility of having schools assigned to the failed Achievement School District.

First of all, there shouldn’t be any testing at all this academic year due to the pandemic and the huge disruption it has been and continues to be for teachers and learners.

Second, in the best of circumstances, the TNReady test is of limited value. Specifically, our state has struggled to even properly administer a test.

Third, really? Testing this year? Despite what the Biden Administration says, it’s just a very bad idea.

While this legislation aligns with what House Education Committee Chair Mark White calls a “carrot and stick” approach, it seems rather counterproductive.

So, if you can’t get your district to the magic 80%, there could be all sorts of potentially negative impacts.

There’s actually some history with the Department of Education punishing districts that don’t reach arbitrary targets.

Will the General Assembly move to correct this mess soon, or will they allow the Commissioner of Education broad discretion to use suspect data to advance a school privatization agenda?

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ASD Light

State Senator Ferrell Haile of Sumner County has filed SB 122, a bill creating a “School Turnaround Pilot Program.” Maybe Haile has never heard of the Achievement School District? It’s difficult to understand why someone who has served on the Senate Education Committee for some time now and should have at least a vague familiarity with education policy in our state would want to recreate one of the biggest public policy failures of the last decade.

Here’s a bit of text from his bill:

(a) The department shall create and develop a five-year school turnaround pilot program for district schools that are in need of intervention pursuant to § 49-6-3604.
(b) The department shall select twenty (20) schools in need of intervention that are diverse geographically, including rural and urban schools and schools in different regions of the state, and diverse in grade levels for the pilot program.
(c) From the twenty (20) schools in need of intervention selected for the pilot program, the department shall randomly select ten (10) schools to be a control group and ten (10) schools to participate in a school turnaround group.
(d) The department shall operate and administer the school turnaround pilot program for five (5) school years beginning with the 2021-2022 school year.

The basis for admission into this “turnaround group” is scores on Tennessee’s failed TNReady test.

Just in case Haile hasn’t been paying attention, here’s a bit of what’s been happening with the Achievement School District since its inception:

Gary Rubinstein refers to the ASD as the Edsel of school reform:

The Tennessee Achievement School District, or ASD, is the Edsel of school reform. Created with a Race To The Top Grant and developed by TFA alum Kevin Huffman, who was state education commissioner at the time, and TFA alum Chris Barbic, the first ASD superintendent, the ASD completely failed in it’s mission to ‘catapult’ schools from the bottom 5% into the top 25% in five years. It is now eight years into the experiment and hardly any of the 30 ASD schools even made it out of the bottom 5%. Not to worry, both Huffman and Barbic resigned and are doing very well with their new project called The City Fund.

More from Rubinstein:

Since 2011 I have been following the biggest, and most predictable, disasters 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%.

And, well, more about the ASD over time:

There’s more. A lot more. The ASD was quite possibly the worst reform effort ever. It would be funny if the failures of the ASD hadn’t and weren’t impacting the lives of actual students.

Now, however, at least one legislator wants to start a new version of the same old game.

What would be innovative, exciting, bold, and actually help kids is something Haile has yet to do during his service: Adequately fund the BEP and support significant new investment in teacher salaries and school resources.

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KIPP, COVID, and Memphis

Gary Rubinstein reports on KIPP using COVID-19 as a reason to flee the troubled Achievement School District:

The Tennessee Achievement School District, or ASD, is the Edsel of school reform. Created with a Race To The Top Grant and developed by TFA alum Kevin Huffman, who was state education commissioner at the time, and TFA alum Chris Barbic, the first ASD superintendent, the ASD completely failed in it’s mission to ‘catapult’ schools from the bottom 5% into the top 25% in five years. It is now eight years into the experiment and hardly any of the 30 ASD schools even made it out of the bottom 5%. Not to worry, both Huffman and Barbic resigned and are doing very well with their new project called The City Fund.

Three of the 30 ASD schools are run by KIPP. Five days ago I read in Chalkbeat TN that two of those KIPP schools are shutting down at the end of this school year. On the KIPP Memphis website they explain to the families “While the community welcomed our network with open arms, we’ve been unable to fulfill our academic promise to our students, teachers and families at KIPP Memphis Preparatory Elementary and KIPP Memphis Preparatory Middle. We understand that these closures will have significant implications on our families. However, we strongly believe this decision is in the best interest of our entire KIPP Memphis community and is a step in the right direction to improve our organization’s ability to build a stronger network of schools.”

Tennessee is where the value-added and growth metrics were developed and these two schools ranked at the bottom of the state. Out of a 4 point scale, one of the schools got a 1 and the other got a 0.1 in growth.

Incidentally, KIPP currently has 13 schools in Tennessee. Of those 13 schools, only 11 have growth scores for 2018-2019, five of those (including the two that are now closing) had growth scores between 0 and 1 and two had growth scores between 1 and 2. So of the 11 schools with this rating, 7 had below to very below average ‘growth.’ Reformers are going to have to make up their minds: Is KIPP a fraud or are growth scores a fraud — they can’t have it both ways.

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The Collapse of the ASD

Gary Rubinstein writes about the collapse of the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD). Here are some highlights:


Since 2011 I have been following the biggest, and most predictable, disasters 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%.


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?

MORE from Rubinstein on the ASD>

MORE on the TN ASD>

Peter Greene on the ASD

Race to the Bottom: ASD

Mission Creep

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New Name, Same Game

Chalkbeat reports that while Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) may effectively be ending, another state-run charter-centric district may emerge to take its place.


Tennessee’s proposal to move all 30 schools out of its struggling turnaround district is already sparking debate about exactly who should run them if the plan gets legislative approval.


House Education Committee Chairman Mark White says any charter schools in the Achievement School District should be entrusted to the state’s new charter commission — not their local districts.

But Rep. Antonio Parkinson says White’s plan would just create an ASD under a different name:


“Moving these schools to the new charter commission would amount to a sleight of hand,” said Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat. “It would just essentially create another state-run district that’s called by another name.”

In fact, that’s exactly what happened in Nevada:


Nevada took a similar approach last year when closing its achievement district after struggling to attract charter operators and facing intense pushback from the communities it served. Four charters from that district now operate under a state-run charter school authority.

The State Charter Commission, Gov. Bill Lee’s vehicle for usurping local school board authority and privatizing public schools, is still in the startup phase. White’s proposal verifies the intent of the Commission — to undermine public education by continuing the proliferation of charter schools.

Also, it’s not clear why White believes this commission will be any better at managing the ASD charters than the ASD was. By contrast, Shelby County’s iZone schools have proven to be successful and returning the ASD charters to district operation there means sending those schools back to a district with a proven ability to get results.

White’s plan is simple: Change the name, keep playing the same “reform” game.

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Peter Greene on the ASD

Education writer Peter Greene takes a look at the history of the Achievement School District and the factors that led to its downfall in a recent piece in Forbes. Here’s more:


To run the ASD, Huffman called on Chris Barbic. Barbic had completed a classroom stint with Teach for America and then gone on to found his own charter management group (YES Prep). Barbic seemed like a strong choice, and he promised to get the job done in five years. After three years, real data was hard to come by, but the best assessments were that the ASD schools were still at the bottom of the pack; the official state list released in spring of 2016 showed that most ASD schools were still in the bottom 5%. But by then, Barbic had resigned.


The ASD grew too quickly. It tried to scale up to the point of being ineffective for some schools. It did a lousy job of listening to the community, and depended too much on folks from outside, instead of growing a local, sustainable support culture. Also, turning around a school takes time.


School takeover models remain one of the great policy artifacts of ed reform hubris, the notion that if we just let the right people grab the wheel, they can fix things right up (because, honestly, the education professionals and experts either don’t know or aren’t trying). But one of the repeated lessons of the last decade is that school turnaround via takeover is really hard to pull off.

MORE on the ASD’s history and why it ultimately failed>

More about the Tennessee Achievement School District:

Crystal Ball

Evidence Be Damned

Not Working

Mission Creep

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Crystal Ball

Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD), a state-run, charter-centric school turnaround model, may soon effectively end operations while remaining an intervention option in a vastly restructured format. This according to a recent story in Chalkbeat. The story notes:


Tennessee wants to return 30 state-run schools to local districts in Memphis and Nashville no later than the fall of 2022, but also wants to retain its state-run district to possibly take over other chronically low-performing schools, says a proposal being unveiled this week.


According to a copy of the proposal obtained by Chalkbeat, the transition is part of a massive reset for the embattled turnaround model known as the Achievement School District – made up mostly of charter organizations – which has fallen woefully short of its goal to improve student performance since launching in 2012. 

Warning

If only there had been some sort of warning early on, perhaps all of this could have been avoided. You know, like someone objectively observing the results of the ASD and the behavior of the district’s leaders and reporting on likely outcomes. Someone who in 2015 wrote something like this:


Instead, the ASD has followed a rather bumpy path, growing while struggling to meet performance goals. The ASD needs growth of 8-10 points a year in the schools it operates in order to hit its targets — and it is well below that number now. That may be in part due to the rapid growth beyond original expectations.


Here’s something that should give policymakers pause: According to the most recent State Report Card, the ASD spends more than $1000 per student MORE than district schools and yet gets performance that is no better than (and sometimes worse) the district schools it replaced.

Immediately after my ASD Mission Creep story was published, a high-level ASD staffer asked me to coffee so he could extol the virtues of the ASD leadership team and let me know I had it wrong. If the ASD stayed the course, I was assured, lots of positive things would happen for kids. Just a few months later, the ASD’s first Superintendent, Chris Barbic, would leave his position and Tennessee. Not long after, the staffer who chastised me for having the gall to point out the facts had also left the Tennessee kids he was so allegedly passionate about helping.

Chaos

While it is nice to be right about a prediction, I am not excited about this news. Yes, I’m hopeful that the transition described will ultimately be positive. But, I’m also concerned about what happens to the kids currently in ASD schools. Additionally, I’m sad for the kids who were part of a failed, 10-year experiment. Here’s a note from the Chalkbeat piece on what’s next for these kids:


Shuffling schools and students among districts also creates a level of chaos that can be harmful to kids and teachers, said Regenia Dowell, president of a parent-teacher-student organization in Frayser, a Memphis community with eight achievement schools.

Would this type of repeated disruption be allowed in a district of wealthy white children? Chaos. You have chaos when a school gets moved into the ASD and converts to a charter. You have chaos when a charter operator decides to opt-out of the ASD just before an academic year starts — or, worse, in the middle of a school year. You have chaos when there’s no clear plan to return schools to district operators. You have chaos when you spend ten years on an experiment that fails to move the needle for kids. It’s not like we don’t know what the challenges are OR how to address them:


Addressing poverty would mean providing access to jobs that pay a living wage as well as ensuring every Tennessean had access to health care. Our state leads the nation in number of people working at the minimum wage. We lead the nation in medical debt. We continue to refuse Medicaid expansion and most of our elected leaders at the federal level are resisting the push for Medicare for All.

Meet the New Plan, Same as the Old Plan

The state’s own presentation on the challenges in the ASD notes:


“Despite good intentions, the ASD was implemented (or grew) too quickly,” the state’s presentation says in recapping some of the lessons learned in Tennessee. “Demand outpaced supply and capacity.”

In 2015, I wrote:


The original plan seems sensible: Work with the 13 most persistently low-performing schools, get them on track, and then use strategies learned in the process to help other schools. Meanwhile, Renewal Schools would be operated by districts and implement other turnaround models (think the iZone in Memphis and Nashville).

In other words, sticking with what was written into the Race to the Top legislation regarding the Achievement School District would mean less chaos and more consistent, focused assistance to the schools most in need of help.

It only took 5 more years for the state to actually admit this. And, it will take another two years for schools to transition back to district control.

The one remaining question is: Will this transition be accompanied with the resources and support districts need to actually help kids and their families?

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