Updated: Hostile Charter Takeovers Sideline Communities

What the education reformers’ policies (charters, vouchers, high-stakes testing, Common Core, VAM etc.) have in common is that they are top-down and focus on private control and privatization. I discussed these common denominators during the Cambridge Forum that was syndicated nationally on NPR last year.

One of the top-down, private control education reformers most prominent tenants are hostile takeovers of neighborhood schools and turning them over to charter corporations. They have undertaken the approach writ large in New Orleans and in piecemeal fashion in Detroit and Tennessee. I discussed the research on these takeover recently in DC at a US House briefing entitled Closed for Learning: The Impact of School Closures. (Check out the post Ghastly Impact of Closing Schools on Students and Communities)

This week I believe that the Center for Popular Democracy will be releasing a new report entitled State Takeovers of Low Performing Schools: A Record of Academic Failure, Financial Mismanagement and Student Harm that is an excellent aggregation of information across these communities. I wrote the introduction to the report and found it comprehensive and informative. Keep a look out— I’ll blog about the report when it comes out.

The top-down, private control education “reformers” like to frame their takeover policies as empowering “parental” and “community” choice. Are they really? Ezra Howard, a doctoral student at the University of Lisbon’s Institute of Education, and a former Memphis, TN teacher emailed me these comments detailing how the hostile charter takeovers empower by the politician’s Achievement School District have sidelined communities instead of empowering them.

In Tennessee, education reformers are conducting hostile takeovers. In 2010, the state legislature created the Achievement School District (ASD) with the charge to rapidly turn around student achievement in schools located on the “priority list,” those in the bottom 5% of the state. In 2011, with list in hand, the ASD began operation with a mix of direct-run schools and those operated by charter management organizations (CMOs). Four year later, the results have been generally poor. While some schools are off the priority list, a recent Vanderbilt study found the results of the ASD’s efforts statistically insignificant. That is, the rate of school improvement would have been the same without state intervention and school disruption. This is particularly damaging consider the local district’s iZone, also turning around schools on the priority list, is seeing impressive results.

Controversy over the state-run Achievement School District seems to be a perennial event in Memphis, Tennessee, where the majority of priority schools are. Each year, the most contentious time for the ASD comes in December, when the state-run district announces which schools will be taken over and by which school operator. More often than not, the schools are matched with one of the various charter corporations that have been authorized to operate by the ASD.

The matching process has proven continuously troublesome for the ASD. In the past, there were two main points of contention. First, the ASD was criticized for automatic matches, where operators were paired with a school with no community input. Second, it was criticized that the ASD was not targeting the lowest performing schools, but often picked schools higher on the priority list or with a recent track record of improvement. The anger over the matching process came to a fever pitch last year with the proposed automatic match with Raleigh Egypt High School, perched very high on the priority list with a new principal, with Green Dot.


Community protest against the ASD takeovers in Raleigh.

Criticism from the community eventually pressured Green Dot to pull out of the matching process that year. Yes Prep followed suit and left operations in Memphis entirely in late March, several months after being matched with Airways Middle School.

With the disastrous aftermath of the matching process of 2014, the ASD promised to revamp its community engagement efforts with the NAC. For the past several years, the ASD has had some level of community input in vetting operators and weighing in on particular matches. Originally, this was with the Achievement Advisory Council (AAC) (full disclosure: I sat on the AAC in 2014). However, there were fair criticisms that parents, teachers, and community members in schools to be taken over by the ASD were not being represented in these councils. As a result, the AAC was retooled into the Neighborhood Advisory Council (NAC), where, in design, half the spots on the NAC were reserved specifically for parents. However, it appears little has changed and community engagement is nothing more than a box to be checked. The real focus appears to be on growth of the ASD. More specifically, the ASD focuses on the growth of charters within its district.

There were two main issues with the NAC matching process. The first was the selection and makeup of the NAC members. The second was the scoring mechanism used by the ASD of the NAC’s recommendations.

Aaron Fowles with Memphis Quest provides a thorough overview of the process after meeting with several NAC members. For one, the interview process was not implemented as designed. Everyone who applied was not offered an interview as was promised, community members and school volunteers were passed over in favor of past AAC members and members of the contentious Memphis Lift (funded by Tennessee’s chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, led by the wife of the out-going superintendent of the ASD), there were far less than the ten members in each NAC, and parents did not end up making up 50% of members. In the end, each NAC was made up of about six people and there were often only two parents in each group.

The NAC members were then charged with vetting CMOs, Green Dot and Scholar Academies, with a rubrics which were then compiled and scored by the ASD. The scoring mechanism was the second major issue for the NAC. I wrote a piece deconstructing the process over at TN Ed Report, but I will summarize. The first issue is that scores were given a low ceiling and a high floor. The passing score was 50%, equivalent to “partially met the standard” on the rubric. To make matters worse, because the rubric was scored on a scale of 1 to 4, each charter corporation was automatically given 25 percentage points and only had to make up 25 more points for a match. Another problem is that entire sections of scores were redacted, where the ASD cited “insufficient evidence bordering on opinion.” However, the burden of proof for scores of 1 and 2 seemed much higher than those of 3 and 4 and redactions appear inconsistent.

Another reason the matches are problematic is that neither Green Dot nor Scholar Academies have proven themselves through increased student achievement. Green Dot operates two schools and only one of which, Fairley High School, has recorded test scores. However, on the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System, highly regarded in identifying schools for takeover, Fairley has a composite score of 2. Any TVAAS score less than 3 denotes negative growth, highly problematic in the rapid world of school turnaround. Scholar Academies, which is operating two schools in its inaugural year, has no track record with student achievement in Tennessee. In fact, the only operator with seemingly consistent results is Achievement Schools, ASD’s direct-run schools, and it hasn’t applied to be matched with any school for the past two years.

In the end, the matching process not only seemed to make matches a foregone conclusion with intentionally low standards, but the entire process, as I argue, appears to be systematic disenfranchisement of the community. On the same day that my piece was published, the NAC held a press conference and validated this claim. Members of the NAC called the matching process “deceptive” and “a scam.” Latoya Robinson, an NAC member for Kirby Middle School, stated “The process was great. But then it was like they found any way they could to make (our rubrics) show what they wanted it to show.” When I corresponded personally with another member from Raleigh-Egypt Middle School, she stated “…we all were blindsided with the results.  Scholars Academy should not have been given REM they aren’t ready. Nor have they proven themselves lives [sic] with the others.”

In a statement responding to the NAC’s public criticism, the ASD stated its position in a press release. The ASD states that “We did our best to run a fair, transparent process and we believe we achieved that. Based on the scored rubrics and methodology we used to ensure parent voice accounted for 50 percent of the feedback we received from the NACs, we had four matches and one school that did not match.” Furthermore, it assets that “We ran our redesigned process with fidelity, and we addressed every concern we were made aware of during the process. We have always attempted to be an organization that listens and learns.” But it is for these exact reasons that the NAC shared its criticism publicly. The ASD asserts that certain members were engaged in “political posturing” rather than being genuinely upset with the matching process and actively ignored by the ASD.

However, the ASD is correct to point out that politics matter. The matching process resulted in quite the political fallout. Shelby County Schools is the district most affected by the ASD. One of its board members, Stephanie Love, drafted a motion that calls for a moratorium on ASD growth. While SCS has no legal authority for such a moratorium, as the ASD is governed by state law, the motion passed unanimously. Furthermore, the Tennessee Black Caucus echoed the call to halt growth and review the ASD’s processes.

In response to criticism, some interesting points have been made in defense of the ASD by interested parties.

The Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), after years of arguing for competition as a driving force for schools to either improve or close and filing amicus briefs in Florida, Ohio, and Washington State on the subject, has held rallies calling for cooperation between the ASD and SCS.  BAEO stated mission is to support educational options for parents, primarily by promoting charter schools and vouchers. After years of extolling the virtues of competition, the timing for such discourse seems very convenient and I wonder if the tune would be the same if iZone, a district-run initiative, was faltering and the ASD, relying on charter schools, was succeeding. Even stranger, the neither the ASD nor the iZone is a choice system. Both rely on zoning for student enrollment. Why BAEO has such a strong opinion on the situation is interesting in and of itself (See the Cloaking Inequity post The Teat: @ntlBAEO, Choice, $, and Strings Attached?)

A number of academics have weighed in on the ASD as well. Most curious are those that warn against ASD closure, especially since the major critics of the ASD, including myself, have not campaigned for shuttering the ASD.


At the press release announcing that Raleigh Egypt High School would not be taken over by the ASD in 2014. James “Bo” Griffin, Principal; State Rep. Antonio Parkinson; SCS board Member Stephanie Love

Antonio Parkinson, the state representative who is perhaps the most consistently critical voice, stated explicitly it wasn’t about closure. Critics want the ASD to provide authentic and meaningful methods for community engagement in the matching process; now they are not. Critics also want operators, whether it be CMOs or the ASD itself, to be held to a high standard of performance prior to expansion; now the bar is set rather low. The argument is for accountability, not closure.

The irony is, if the ASD continues to down the same path, closure will be a certainty. As it is, authentic community engagement is nothing more than a talking point for the ASD, and the community’s trust in the process is gone. Community buy-in is paramount to intensive school turnaround. Furthermore, the ASD exhibits a zealous reliance on CMOs that have either a shaky or non-existent track record in turning around zoned schools in Memphis. As a result of both of these factors, student achievement tends to yo-yo inconsistently. The legislative machine, with all its political expediency and distaste for fiscal waste and failure, will shutter the ASD. By then, if they haven’t already, all the individuals who claimed to “listen and learn” but whose actions said otherwise will have left, using Memphis as the stepping stone to the next great experiment. As Malika Anderson stated in a recent TV interview, they will continually claim “It was too soon to tell!” myopically ignoring their own missteps and shortcomings.

Last year, then-ASD superintendent Chris Barbic made some rather telling statements on WKNO’s Behind the Headlines that I believe highlight the very troublesome mindset of the ASD during the matching process. He said, “You know, we’ve said from the very beginning this is about quality over scale,” but qualified it with “and we’re never going to force a charter partner to take on a school if they feel like that they’re not in a position, for whatever reason, to do well.” In essence, quality over scale doesn’t mean the ASD will hinder growth through the matching process, it simply won’t force it. He later goes on to say that

And I think it’s important to remind people, we actually have the authority to do that. We’re choosing not to take all 80 schools at once. We’re choosing to work with Shelby County Schools. We’re choosing to have community meetings to have this be a very open and transparent process and we don’t have to do any of those things.

While he states, “And I don’t say that to kind of puff my chest out and beat it,” I believe these comments show the true color of the matching process and that the choice, and more importantly, power, really lies with the ASD and its charters, not the community.

Ezra Howard

Updated 1/25/16: There’s been a couple updates this past week. Bi-partisan legislation was filed by Parkinson to disband the ASD, though it’s probably a tactic to pass more moderate bills that set limits on expansion. Malika Anderson was called into the legislature to defend the ASD and she asked for patience. This is a complete turnaround from the constant call for urgency from ASD itself, where the top brass current and former have called for a sense of urgency in turnaround work. Lastly, the commercial appeal wrote an editorial defending the ASD while conveniently missing the point about failure, accountability, and systematic silencing of poor, minority communities. 

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