After a highly contentious debate this afternoon, a bipartisan majority in the House passed House Bill 1080, the goal of which is the creation of a new “Achievement School District” (ASD). The legislation establishes a special turnaround district whereby charter schools gain legal authority to take over and operate five of North Carolina’s chronically underperforming elementary schools. The bill now heads to the Senate.
Since Louisiana first established a statewide turnaround district in 2003, a small but increasing number of states have created ASDs to increase the probability of success in preparing students for college, careers, and active citizenship. Although states are increasingly interested in ASDs, this is still a new strategy just beginning to produce useful lessons. The experiences of early adopters should help point states in the right direction, with great potential for refined strategies as the field develops.1
A charter school is a publicly-funded school that is operated by a private nonprofit board. These public charter schools are independent, non-religious, tuition-free public schools with operational and educational autonomy in exchange for increased financial and academic accountability. Unlike traditional public schools, public charter schools can be closed if they do not meet academic or operational standards.1
The performance of traditional public schools in North Carolina is evaluated by the Department of Public Instruction and schools are given a School Performance Grade which becomes part of their NC School Report Card.
The School Performance Grades were issued for the first time in the 2013-14 school year as required by the state legislature (Appropriations Act of 2013, S.L. 2013-360, s. 9.4b). All public schools in the state have been assigned an A through F letter grade. Eighty percent of school grades are based on the percentage of student tests scores that are at or above grade-level performance, and 20 percent are based on academic growth.
The legislation would use the following criteria to identify schools that could be placed in achievement districts:
- The school earned a grade of F on the annual report card for a minimum of two consecutive years;
- The school received a school performance score that is in the lowest 25 percent of all K-5 schools during those two years; and
- The school is classified as low-performing by the State Board of Education.
Representative Cecil Brockton, a Democrat who supported the bill, remarked in an April committee meeting that “People in my community have a sense of urgency. [In District 60,] there are schools that have been failing for years. Those people can’t wait. Those parents can’t wait for us to fix the problem. And it’s not a Republican problem. It’s not a Democratic problem. It’s our problem. It affects us all. And it’s something that we need to handle with a sense of urgency.”
At that same meeting, Gary Henry, professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, told committee members that, “average student proficiency has increased almost 10 percentage points since creation of ASD in Tennessee” and that “we can change outcomes for students if we are brave enough and thoughtful enough.”
Dr. Terry Stoops, Director of Research and Education Studies at the John Locke Foundation, completes the picture in his recent article Conservatives should support achievement districts:
A more serious question is why liberals are up in arms about the potential takeover of five of North Carolina’s 1,845 elementary schools. Indeed, the ASD would oversee instruction and operations for only 0.3 percent of elementary schools in the state. That is hardly a recipe for the kind of widespread calamity prophesized by those on the Left. Then again, their objection to the ASD has more to do with advancing their “school privatization” narrative than actually trying to improve chronically low-performing schools and bolster economic and educational opportunities for North Carolina’s disadvantaged children.
Accordingly, ASD opponents have put forward suspect claims about the proposed legislation and record.
For example, opponents of achievement district legislation complain that it lacks accountability. HB 1080, however, includes robust accountability measures. Consider the fact that
- the members of the State Board of Education select an established entity to manage the ASD;
- the ASD Superintendent serves at the pleasure of the State Board of Education;
- the ASD Superintendent must submit an annual report on all aspects of the operation to the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee;
- the ASD may be terminated by the State Board of Education if its schools do not meet certain student performance benchmarks;
- the State Board of Education is required to contract with an independent research organization to evaluate the implementation and effectiveness of the ASD at the conclusion of the initial five‑year contract; and
- most importantly, the General Assembly could repeal ASD legislation at any time.
Simply put, the ASD is subject to the oversight of both the State Board of Education and the members of the General Assembly. If it ain’t working, it ain’t staying.
To their credit, lawmakers have carefully evaluated the ASD in an interim committee and remain cautious. They recognize that the initial results from similar plans in other states are encouraging but those plans did not necessarily produced immediate or consistent gains in student achievement.
For example, results from the third year of Tennessee’s ASD indicated that “student scores grew faster than the state in math and science, second- and third-year schools earned state’s highest possible growth rating, and high schools made proficiency gains in every subject.” On the other hand, reading scores declined slightly last year and remain relatively low.
North Carolina’s ASD will build on the considerable strengths of the idea, while keeping in mind shortcomings identified by ASDs in Tennessee and elsewhere. In fact, Chapel Hill-based Public Impact already did the work. In The Achievement School District: Lessons from Tennessee, authors Juli Kim, Tim Field, and Elaine Hargrave conclude,
The true measure of ASD success will become clearer in the coming years as the portfolio of ASD schools matures and demonstrates a multiyear track record of student academic performance. The long-term legacy of the ASD will hinge on how public officials, school operators, philanthropic organizations, and community members navigate many of the topics covered in this report.
Later this year, the Tennessee Department of Education will release standardized test scores for 2016. At that point, we’ll have a much clearer picture of the performance of the state’s ASD schools.
In the meanwhile, lawmakers should lay the groundwork for an Achievement School District in this state. Conservatives must be bold if they truly care about raising student achievement for those who need it the most.
What Other States Are Doing
In February 2013, America Achieves convened leaders of five ASDs in Washington, D.C., for a discussion about common challenges and to share best practices.1
Attendees included key staff at the ASDs in Connecticut, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Tennessee. In the states represented at the convening, the district’s authority comes as follows:
- Connecticut: Commissioner’s Network: Public Act 12-116 (2012); commissioner may direct interventions in 25 of the state’s lowest-performing schools. If a network school’s turnaround committee fails to create a plan or creates a plan deemed deficient, commissioner can appoint a special master to implement a turnaround plan.
- Louisiana: Recovery School District: State Act 9 (2003), expanded by Act 35 (2005); can take over schools, not whole districts. Schools that fail to meet standards for at least four consecutive years may be placed in the state’s Recovery School District.
- Massachusetts: Office of District and State Turnaround: State Act 2247 (2010); can take over schools and districts. State may oversee “Level 4” schools (those in lowest 20 percent of schools statewide) and appoint a receiver for “Level 5” schools (those in the lowest 10 percent statewide) or an entire district that has Level 5 schools.
- Michigan: Education Achievement Authority: Created through an interlocal agreement between the emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools and Eastern Michigan University. The lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state that are not achieving satisfactory results on a redesign plan or that are under an emergency manager are eligible for inclusion in the EAA.
- Tennessee: Achievement School District: First to the Top Act (2010, expanded in 2012) — can take over schools and districts. The lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state are eligible for inclusion in the ASD or in district Innovation Zones.
1. Public Impact, Chapel Hill, NC, “Extraordinary authority districts”: Design considerations— framework and takeaways“