Chris Barbic, Nelson Smith, Landry Clarke & Gene Gene the Dancing Machine

Redefining the School District in TennesseeTennessee’s Achievement Schools District is the latest character to enter the stage in the most important and interesting act of contemporary education reform: structural-institutional changes in the running and governing of public schools.

For eons, the plot was the same: a district owns and operates all of the public schools in a geographic area. The subplot, if you were in urban America, was that the district-run schools serving most of your community’s kids did so quite badly.

Chartering, entering stage right in 1991, subtly but revolutionarily, showed that other entities could run public schools. A few years later, Michigan and Massachusetts, adding dimension to the character, showed that non-district entities could also authorize (approve, monitor, renew, close) public schools.

The district’s proprietary grip on public education was broken.

Over the course of the 1990s, chartered schools slowly got more and more stage time, growing to capture larger market shares in America’s cities: 10, 15, 20, 30% in some areas.

The plot developed with a new strand: more and more state departments of education were empowered to take over individual schools and entire districts. 

In hindsight, this was the play’s most unfortunate interlude—the jump-the-shark scene, the add-a-precocious-child-to-the-cast strategy, the second season of Friday Night Lights.  SEAs, like a dog who chased and caught a car, didn’t know what to do with the schools and districts it took over. Low-performance continued, and the character embarrassingly (mostly) slinked off-stage.

But this aside wasn’t a total loss. It provided more evidence that public schools could be operated, monitored, and governed in lots of different ways.

We’ve not reached the end of this play yet, but it at this point, it appears the climax was the swift expansion of Louisiana’s Recovery School District, post-Katrina.  This was a new state-controlled body with the authority to take over low-performing schools and their facilities, close them, run them, or hand their operations to someone else. Now the dominant force in New Orleans, with a hand in schools educating four of every five city kids, the RSD has been instrumental in fundamentally—and hopefully forever—changing our understanding of the delivery of public schooling.

No one I know is better positioned to understand and explain the arc of this story, reveal its complications, pick out its nuances, and suggest its possibilities, than Nelson Smith.  The original executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, former president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, current Senior Advisor to the National Association of Charter School Authorizer, and much more, Smith understands chartering and school governance inside and out.

So when a new character bounds upon this stage, and you desperately need an expert critic at your side to help make sense of it all, Nelson’s your guy.

This is why he was asked to write the story of the still-young Achievement School District in Tennessee. True to his billing, Smith offers, in this excellent short paper, a combination of history, reporting, and analysis; it is straightforward and sober but quite hopeful.

The reader walks away understanding not just the ASD’s success, struggles, vulnerabilities, and potential but also its context. That is invaluable to those interested in dramatically improving urban schooling, but especially for those, like me, who are convinced that the ancient, failed, traditional urban district structure should’ve been gonged or shunted aside by the sandman ages ago.

The paper takes us on a brief stroll through the history of structural school-improvement strategies then describes the genesis of the ASD. Created in the Race-to-the-Top-application era to convince federal scorers that Tennessee was serious about its failing schools, the ASD was charged with, well, doing exactly that.

With powers similar to the RSD but different in important ways, the ASD can take over schools and run them or partner them with third-party operators.

If you want details on how schools are made eligible for takeover or how they exit ASD control, you’ll get it.

But I found much more interesting how Chris Barbic—former superstar charter network leader and first and current ASD head—shaped the new body through fascinating approaches to growth, operator recruitment, school matching, community engagement, human capital, and more. I’m a big Barbic fan, so I’m probably biased, but his success in landing superb school operators, expanding his portfolio slowly, and avoiding unnecessary fights is quite impressive.

I’m not yet fully convinced that the ASD/RSD model is the right one. These bodies are designed to have a statewide reach, and their control of schools is meant to be temporary. I’m convinced we need a new school-delivery and –governance model that is city-specific and city-driven and that this system should replace the district, not work around and through it. The RSD, in practice, is quite close, but the ongoing battle over local recapture of taken-over schools will continue until the district is decommissioned explicitly and permanently.

But these are arguments at the margins. The RSD is infinitely superior to the failed urban district, and though the ASD is still young, under Barbic’s tutelage, its prospects are bright.

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