A new report from researchers at George Washington University provides a qualitative analysis of the reasons why Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) – that state’s efforts to turn around low-performing schools by handing the schools over to private charter operators – has failed. The report, based on 140 interviews with leaders of the ASD and nine operators, identifies the myriad problems facing the Tennessee ASD schools in an attempt to explain why the schools have failed to come anywhere near approaching the goal of moving schools from the state’s bottom 5% to the top 25% within five years.
The North Carolina General Assembly passed its own version of the Tennessee program this past Session. HB 1080 currently sits on Governor McCrory’s desk, awaiting his expected signature (see the North Carolina Justice Center’s letter to Governor McCrory urging the veto of HB 1080 here). The bill, which would turn five low-performing North Carolina elementary schools over to private charter operators in the 17-18 school year, was shepherded through the General Assembly by Rep. Rob Bryan and Sen. Chad Barefoot. Both assured fellow legislators that – unlike Tennessee – North Carolina’s ASD program will be successful due to unspecified “guardrails.”
But are there “guardrails” in North Carolina’s ASD program that will protect it from the pitfalls experienced in Tennessee?
The George Washington report details a number of barriers to success in Tennessee. An examination of these barriers shows that North Carolina’s program suffers from a distinct lack of “guardrails.” That is, HB 1080 does nothing to ensure that North Carolina’s ASD program won’t experience the same problems that doomed Tennessee’s program (and its largely poor and minority students) to failure.
Challenges of neighborhood enrollment and constrained school choice
Schools in Tennessee’s ASD are – like other public schools – required to recruit students from the school’s neighborhood attendance zone. The George Washington researchers noted that this factor has prevented the ASD schools from establishing stability since they are unable to control the timing of student entry. The high student mobility – a common situation in low-performing schools – has weakened the ASD schools’ ability to acclimate students to the school culture and address students’ individual needs over an extended period of time.
Just like in Tennessee, HB 1080 will require North Carolina’s ASD schools to admit students with the same attendance zone that was in place prior to becoming an ASD school. These schools will face the same poverty-related barriers to learning faced by the ASD schools in Tennessee.
Are there “guardrails” to help North Carolina’s ASD avoid pitfalls related to neighborhood enrollment and constrained school choice? No.
Challenges of serving students with special needs
In Tennessee, the ASD schools serve a substantially higher concentration of students with special needs than in a typical Tennessee charter school. Additionally, the Tennessee ASD schools were – like other public schools – required to pay for services for their assigned disabled students even if the students received the services elsewhere. Many of the Tennessee ASD schools have had to negotiate solutions with school district to ensure these students are receiving required services. These financial strains significantly impacted student performance even though Tennessee budgeted nearly $50 million in Race to the Top funds for its ASD program.
Just like in Tennessee, the charter operators in North Carolina’s ASD will almost certainly be serving higher proportions of students with special needs. There is a strong correlation between poverty and special education. Additionally, North Carolina’s ASD schools will likely serve a number of high-cost students. Depending on how the ASD school is funded, it will either need to find ways to serve these students with existing funds (i.e., reducing services to non-disabled students) or negotiate a solution with the school district in which the ASD school is located. North Carolina’s ASD schools will not benefit from an additional injection of funding, as was provided to Tennessee’s ASD schools.
Are there “guardrails” designed to help North Carolina’s ASD avoid pitfalls related to serving students with special needs? No.
Challenges of community resistance
In Tennessee, the school district was able to prioritize which schools would be selected to be part of the ASD. Selected schools were immediately overseen by the charter operator. The charter operators were unable to phase into a school one grade at a time, as – per the report – many prefer to do. Additionally, there was a “high degree of community resistance and pushback to the idea of removing schools from their traditional district” in Tennessee. Despite substantial efforts, Tennessee’s ASD operators were unable to build strong ties to parents or to the wider community. There remains considerable local resistance to Tennessee’s ASDs.
Just like in Tennessee, school districts will be able to prioritize which schools could be transferred into the ASD, and charter operators will be unable to phase into the school one grade at a time. Additionally, HB 1080 fails to include any “guardrails” addressing community outreach. Under HB 1080, the private charter operators are only “encouraged to hold public informational sessions and other outreach to the community.” They are not required to have a specific plan in place, nor do they receive any funding to conduct community outreach. The only requirement is that the ASD school selection process must include, “a public hearing to allow for parent and community input,” though the bill’s wording makes it unclear who is responsible for conducting this hearing.
Are there “guardrails” helping North Carolina’s ASD avoid pitfalls related to community resistance? No.
The one tangible “guardrail” that Rep. Bryan and Sen. Barefoot both continually noted in public testimony was that the private charter operators selected to run schools under North Carolina’s ASD program must demonstrate “a record of results in improving performance of persistently low?performing schools,” or have a “credible and specific plan” to do so. The George Washington report indicates that this “guardrail” will be insufficient to ensure student success. As the researchers note, “the turnaround space for charters (in an ASD) is indisputably different from their usual circumstances, and as such calls for a very different type of schooling operations.” The Tennessee program failed despite relying upon private charter operators with “a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge and experience.”
North Carolina’s ASD program is similarly set up for failure. Despite the assurances of the bill sponsors, there are no “guardrails” to ensure success. HB 1080 is a poorly-crafted plan that fails to seriously address any of the issues that derailed Tennessee’s program. If it becomes law, as is expected, it will almost certainly fail, just as it has in Tennessee.