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Only two bills still alive out of 22 to limit the state’s school turnaround district

Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari's district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state's Achievement School District.
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari's district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state's Achievement School District.
Tajuana Cheshier

Two months after the leader of the state’s school turnaround district implored lawmakers to give the sweeping program time to succeed or fail, it appears that Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) will weather the legislative session intact.

As the 109th General Assembly enters its final month, only two of 22 bills to limit the district’s authority are left standing. Of those, ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic had input in both.

The remaining two bills were approved Wednesday by the Senate Education Committee.

The first, introduced by Rep. Harold Love (D-Nashville) and Sen. Reginald Tate (D-Memphis), requires the state Department of Education to notify schools that they are in the bottom 10 percent of Tennessee schools a year before the release of the state’s priority list, which identifies the bottom 5 percent and makes them vulnerable to state takeover. The intention is to give struggling schools time to improve before the state intervenes.

The second bill, sponsored by Tate and Rep. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis), prohibits the ASD from taking over schools with high student growth scores.

The House sponsors of both bills said they were willing to compromise with officials from the ASD and the state Education Department because they want results for their constituents. More sweeping legislation – such as bills to abolish the school district altogether – never received motions for discussion, much less votes.

Love and Akbari revised their bills after talking with officials from the ASD and the Education Department, which Barbic said he appreciated. “We want to make sure folks understand what we’re doing, and sit down and have those conversations,” he said.

Akbari and Love told Chalkbeat they don’t oppose the ASD, but they do oppose the district’s process for state intervention. They said their constituents often feel bullied by the district’s rapid action.

“It may take a few years for [the ASD] to be more palatable [to constituents] because, right now, it’s viewed as an intrusion — let me use better words — it’s viewed as a takeover,” Love said. “Anything like that happens and it hurts the chances of successes.”

The bill to give warning to struggling schools is scheduled to be discussed April 7 in the House Education Administration and Planning Committee. The bill to prohibit takeover of schools with high TVAAS scores is slated for consideration April 8 in the House Finance subcommittee.

The legislative climate for the ASD today has improved somewhat since February when Barbic – besieged by legislative proposals targeting the 4-year-old district – testified before the Senate Education Committee. “There’s 22 bills that have been filed right now that are either trying to kill [the ASD] or pull it apart, and this thing hasn’t even gotten out of the petri dish,” Barbic said amidst a lengthy discussion.

Akbari and Love had filed other bills intended to curb the ASD’s intervention process. Both moved to disallow phase-in models, in which the ASD’s charter operator takes over a school only one grade at a time while the local district continues to operate the remaining grades. They argued that the model – known as co-location – hurts students in older grades who are stuck in a school that the state has labeled as failing.

“I had one parent tell me it was like some children were going to this new special school, and other children were just getting the resources leftover,” Akbari said. “And I don’t want any child to feel like that.”

Shelby County Schools no longer allows the ASD to co-locate with their schools, which was a contributing factor in a decision last week by YES Prep, a Texas-based charter operator, to pull out of Memphis.

Love also originally had filed a bill to forbid the ASD from adding grades that the school didn’t serve before its takeover. For instance, the LEAD charter network, which will operate Neely’s Bend Middle School in Nashville, is considering eventually adding a high school at that location.

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

Ultimately, Akbari and Love said they focused on the two bills that have the best chance of passing.

“The other bills, you know, they’re so important to me,” Akbari said. “But I don’t think we can get any sort of support for them [this year], and that’s the key.”

However, Akbari said the ASD and its work will remain a subject for potential future legislation. “I am not going to let the issue fade into the sunset,” she said. “These issues are too important for those who live in Memphis.”

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

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