Lawmakers see pitfalls and promise in state school takeover

The legislative champion of a state takeover of a handful of low-performing schools remains committed to the idea even though a similar effort in Tennessee has struggled.

A House select committee looked Wednesday at the successes and shortcomings of the Achievement School District in Tennessee, established for some of that state’s lowest performing schools. Legislators are considering setting up a similar, smaller district in North Carolina.

The Tennessee Achievement School District has more than two dozen schools run by various charter operators that Superintendent Malika Anderson oversees.

While Anderson told legislators student performance is improving, two researchers who studied the development of the district and its schools described their limitations.

The achievement schools had no effect on student performance in math, reading or science, said Gary Henry, a researcher from Vanderbilt University. Political backlash created instability for the schools, drawing attention from education, said Joshua Glazier of George Washington University. The district publicized lofty goals that it could not realistically meet, Glazier said.

Rep. Rob Bryan, a Charlotte Republican, is proposing that up to five of North Carolina’s lowest performing schools be removed from local control and put into their own Achievement School District. Charter school operators would run the schools and that small group would be overseen by its own superintendent working for the State Board of Education. He hopes to get a bill passed this year.

Tennessee also established another type of school called “iZone” schools, which remain under the control of local districts but are run more like charter schools.

A new version of Bryan’s bill would allow for the creation of iZone schools in districts that transfer a school to the Achievement School District.

Henry, the Vanderbilt researcher, said iZone schools showed moderate to large improvement in students’ reading, math, and science test scores.

Memphis iZone schools focused on getting good teachers. Low-performing teachers did not have their contracts renewed, high-performing teachers were given 14 percent raises, on average, to stay, and high-quality teachers were hired with raises that averaged 17 percent, Henry said. “The iZone reform is focused on teaching and learning in the classroom,” he said.

The improvement in math and science scores in the iZone schools was equivalent to reducing class sizes by 10 students, Henry said. “These effects are what we consider in education large and significant,” he said.

Bryan remains committed to establishing the special district. Setting up an achievement district creates an incentive for other schools to come up with ways to improve, he said.

“You have to have a state takeover threatened to create an iZone,” Bryan said. “That kind of hammer is needed.”

The broad Tennessee results don’t show school differences, Bryan said. Some charter operators do better than others, Bryan said, and his bill has provisions to make sure the state gets “the best of the best” charter schools.

The select committee is set vote on a bill in April, before the legislative short session begins. It would still have to go through the House Education committee, Bryan said. Though he has been keeping Senate education leaders updated on the bill, he does not have a commitment that it will be heard in the Senate.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner