Get Ready For The Next Wave Of Education “Reform”

Jeff Bryant

Education activists are rejoicing that the latest versions of No Child Left Behind reauthorization coursing through Congress may give struggling schools a way to have more control over their own governance and destiny.

NCLB originally mandated such unreal expectations on schools the vast majority of them would be branded “failed.” New legislation, as currently written, would change that.

Prominent education groups representing teachers and administrators like this turn of events and want bills from the House and the Senate to quickly proceed to conference.

Should the onerous provisions imposed on schools by NCLB indeed be lifted, lots of struggling schools will breathe easier without the “failed” brand looming over their buildings. But if this new flexibility comes to pass, it’s no time to take a victory lap if you’re someone who believes teachers, parents, and students should have a voice in how their local schools operate.

As anti-democratic pressures appear to be easing on the federal front, they are ratcheting up in states across the country. In fact, the next form of education “reform” may be as bad or worse than what NCLB imposed.

Out With The Old Reform, In With … ?

Alyson Klein in Education Week summarizes specifically what NCLB originally imposed and how that policy may be changed by new legislation.

As she explains, under NCLB, states were required to meet “annual achievement goals” – basically, test score targets – for students including “subgroups” such as English-language learners and students in special education. When schools couldn’t meet these targets – and most schools can’t – they were considered to be not making “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP. As Klein states, “The 2013-14 proficiency deadline turned out to be unrealistic. By 2015, no state had gotten all of its students over that bar.”

Waivers offered by the Obama administration provided states a way to avoid immediate sanctions, but the waiver requirements were equally absurd, and, Klein observes, ” Not many states took the department up on that flexibility.”

What new legislation appears to be aiming for, Klein explains, is a way for states to get out of AYP and develop their own accountability systems.

But as this mostly good thing appears to be happening a mostly bad thing is also in the works, and there 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 school 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.

Same As The Old Boss

As I reported in my investigation of Nashville public schools, when state lawmakers in Tennessee created its state takeover agency, called the Achievement School District, they gave appointed officials the power to override local governance and take control of the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state.

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 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. When the ASD rolled into Memphis, another troubled Tennessee school district, the ASD immediately began targeting the district’s schools for takeover by charter operations.

My article quotes Metro Nashville Public School board member Will Pinkston who explains how “the charter school movement has hijacked education policy” by using the ASD as an opening to impose more privatization of public schools without any local consent of the educators and families affected.

Pinkston accuses the ASCD of engineering “hostile takeovers” of local schools that marginalize community input, much like federal mandates imposed by NCLB did. “It’s immoral to force this kind of change on people who don’t want it,” he states.

It also doesn’t work.

No Way To Govern Schools

Prompted by Barbic’s recent resignation announcement, Andrea Zelinski, a reporter for a Nashville independent news outlet, recalls his initial promise was to “turn the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools to the top 25 percent in five years.” His Achievement District came nowhere near to achieving that.

As Zelinski reports, “Results from last year show reading scores were lower in ASD schools in 2014 than they were before the state stepped in 2012. In the six schools the district has run for two years (a benchmark for inclusion in ASD scores), third through eighth grade reading scores plummeted from 18.1 percent on grade level before the takeover to 13.4 percent in its first year. Last year, reading scores rebounded to 17 percent, but still fall below pre-takeover scores. In that time, math scores have climbed more than five points.”

We’ve seen this kind of failure elsewhere when state agencies step in with takeover efforts and impose their will on a community’s schools.

In Michigan, for instance, a statewide Education Achievement Authority created by Governor Rick Snyder in 2011 has been lording over local schools without having much positive results to show for it.

As an article in The Detroit Metro Times explains, efforts by the Michigan EAA to improve achievement levels of students in that city have been fraught with financial shenanigans and charges of corruption with little to show for improvement in student performance. On the state-administered standardized tests, “a high majority of EAA students are either stagnating in terms of reaching math and reading proficiency, or falling even further behind,” the article explains.

A Detroit-based advocacy group went even deeper into the test date to report, “Most EAA students failed to make even marginal progress toward proficiency. The portrait is even grimmer for the small number of students who had entered the EAA already demonstrating proficiency. In math, 66 percent are no longer proficient. In reading, 37 percent are no longer proficient.”

Despite the poor track record of these state-operated school takeover agencies, lawmakers across the country are still making moves to adopt similar “reform” models.

The Madness Spreads

“Nevada, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Arkansas all appear poised to launch state-run turnaround school districts,” similar to the one operated by the Volunteer State according to Tennessee Chalkbeat news outlet.

“In at least five other states – Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin – lawmakers or activists have begun campaigns to launch similar programs,” the report continues. Also, Virginia would likely have its version of an ASD, called Opportunity Education Institute, were it not struck down by a court ruling.

Add North Carolina to the list of states interested in a state takeover program. As education journalist Lindsay Wagner of NC Policy Watch reports, the Tarheel state appears to be the “next to take up this flavor of education reform.”

Wagner reports that an NC Republican Representative is “pushing a bill that would pull five of the state’s lowest-performing elementary schools out of their local school districts and put them into a state-controlled ‘achievement school district.’”

Like the Tennessee model, this policy would allow the appointed agency “to fire all teachers and staff and enter into five year contracts with private charter school management companies to handle the schools’ operations.”

In Ohio, governor, and now presidential candidate, John Kasich is using a law that requires the establishment of an Academic Distress Committee for struggling schools to enact new legislation that overrides local control. According to an Ohio press outlet, the new law lets the state appoint a new CEO who can override the local superintendent, convert “failed” schools to charter schools, and transfer elected school boards to mayoral appointment.

Ohio, it should be noted, may have the nation’s most maligned charter schools – so bad, in fact, they have become the object of ridicule among charter school supporters.

In New York, the state Education Department recently put 144 ”persistently struggling” schools under a new program that threatens them with “outside receivership.” According to a New York news source, this makes the schools subject to being “taken over by an independent entity, such as a college or even a charter school operator.”

Not surprisingly, as education historian Diane Ravitch reports from her personal blog, the schools being targeted for takeover are way more apt to enroll low-income students of color, children with learning disabilities, or students whose first language isn’t English.

A Fight For Democracy

These state takeovers of public school districts invariably send students, parents, and teachers to the ramparts.

As I reported from Nashville, communities being targeted for state takeover of their schools are fighting back. Whether the target is York, Pennsylvania; Youngstown, Ohio; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; or Bellaire, Michigan, Americans insist on having control of their education destinies.

Those who back this new version of education reform call resistance to their plans “government monopoly,” “the education establishment,” or “the status quo.”

I call it democracy.

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