Bridges: Achievement district bill no magic bullet

San Antonio AllianceUncategorized

The latest “magic bullet” education fad is the notion that a state-run “achievement district” should take over neighborhood schools after two years of low test scores and hand them off to private charter operators.

State takeover under this scheme would require no inquiry into the reasons for low ratings and no prior finding that a school targeted for takeover had received the staffing, funding or other support needed to improve. Once taken over by the state, the school could be run pretty much as the charter operator sees fit, and most state safeguards of educational quality and fair treatment for students, teachers and parents would no longer apply.

“Achievement district” bills did not pass in the regular legislative session, and it is good for Texas schoolchildren that they didn’t. Parent and community advocates including Save Texas Schools and the Texas NAACP joined educators in opposing these measures as a diversion from the real work of school improvement for the benefit of Texas students. As Save Texas Schools put it, the legislation was “a poorly developed, heavy-handed effort to force privatization where it is not needed.”

This Texas effort borrowed the “achievement district” idea from next door in Louisiana at the urging of a well-funded army of “Texans for Education Reform” lobbyists and their private-interest backers. But the evidence from Louisiana, the only state where this idea has been tried long enough to produce results, shows that turning schools over to privately run charter operations has been a failure as a strategy for school improvement.

Despite inflated claims of student “growth,” over eight years Louisiana’s charter-dominated Recovery District has ranked persistently among that state’s worst school districts — 57th out of 70 currently, with proficiency scores well below the statewide average. Independent research shows that most Recovery District charter schools have earned “D” or “F” academic ratings. The Recovery District, perhaps understandably, has fought freedom-of-information requests that would allow further independent analysis of its performance, according to Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig of the University of Texas.

“Achievement district” promoters also would have you believe that neighborhood schools will be improved by disenfranchising taxpayers and parents via state takeover and by eliminating important state standards. Eliminated would be: class-size limits, key disciplinary rights of students and disciplinary authority of teachers, parental rights to see curriculum materials, required extra services for students at risk of failing state exams, policies barring grade inflation, teachers’ contract rights affording a modicum of due process and protection against cronyism, teachers’ planning periods, and more.

But nullifying state quality safeguards is not a school-improvement strategy. The record of Texas charter schools, largely exempted from state quality standards, proves the point. Official state studies have found that charter schools generally produce relatively weaker academic results, have less qualified teachers and experience higher student and teacher turnover than traditional neighborhood schools with similar students. (The exceptions — high-performing charters like KIPP — tend to function like magnet schools, not as models for turning around low-performing neighborhood schools that take all comers. KIPP, in fact, has avowedly bowed out of the school-turnaround business.)

Backers claim the “achievement district” would be the emergency room of public education, but what kind of an ER does away with quality standards and safety protocols? Surely it makes better sense to use an ICU approach, providing intensive care for struggling students by strictly enforcing state quality standards, ensuring smaller class sizes with intensive, accelerated instruction, and making sure schools serving high concentrations of these students have first claim on essential resources.

One feature of the Texas “achievement district” bills seemed to concede this point, requiring state-takeover schools to have teachers certified in the subject they teach. But proponents insisted on leaving this provision subject to routine waiver, and they otherwise dismissed the “intensive care” approach entirely.

The authors of the “achievement district” bills well know that Texas has made it harder to provide “intensive care” by cutting billions of dollars from state aid to school districts and from grants for full-day prekindergarten and the Student Success Initiative for pupils at risk of failing state exams. Texas educators share the authors’ goal of fully restoring education funding. We also share their urgent desire that struggling students in underserved neighborhoods should have a priority claim on the resources they need to succeed.

Let’s unite in pursuit of these aims and not be diverted and divided by the false promise of “achievement district” pseudo-reform.

Bridges is president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers.