Last month, Dr. Sharon Griffin, chief of Tennessee’s Achievement School District’s (ASD), stepped down from the statewide district. Launched in 2012, the ASD operates schools that have been identified in the bottom 5% for student performance and authorizes Charter Management Organizations to manage the district’s identified schools. While it’s unclear what led to Dr. Griffin’s departure, national data consistently show statewide districts and state takeovers of individual school districts do not lead to statistically significant increased student achievement results. The ASD schools have not made any substantive gains in academic achievement since its inception in 2012.
The Southern Education Foundation (SEF) fundamentally believes in limiting control of public education to the level of government closest and most responsive to the taxpayers and parents of the children being educated. Yet throughout the southern region, there is a proliferation of state takeovers without affirming evidence that states have the capacity or effectiveness to dramatically improve chronically low-performing schools. In 2016, Mississippi advanced legislation to create a turnaround district similar to Tennessee’s ASD. Over a 14 month span from 2017 – 2018, the South Carolina state superintendent unilaterally decided to take over and erase local control in more school districts in South Carolina than in the last 20 years combined. And nearly half of all the states in the country have provisions that allow for a state takeover. However, most states cannot make a research-based claim that state takeovers of school districts yield improved academic results.
If chronically low-performing schools are to succeed, they need state support, not state intrusion. Those supports should include an increase in per-pupil funding, effective and consistent teacher development and school leadership, and comprehensive wraparound services. Specialized district-led school improvement efforts, such as Tennessee’s iZones, showed positive trends as well. SEF supports research-based school improvement policies and urges states to support local districts with funding, training, and best practices to improve local school systems.